While heroism itself has always been class- and color-blind, the individuals responsible for officially honoring it have not always been as egalitarian. Racist attitudes and policies combined to deprive men from minorities of recognition by means of the Medal of Honor. There were, however, exceptions, such as the case of Robert Augustus Sweeney, of the U.S. Navy, an African American and one of the nineteen double Medal of Honor recipients.
At the end of the Civil War, the Union army contained about 179,000 African American troops organized into segregated units called “colored units” and commanded by white officers. The navy had about 19,000 African Americans. Prejudice confined most colored units to garrison or other noncombat, menial duties. Of the 1,522 Medals of Honor distributed during the Civil War, twenty-five went to African Americans, six to Jewish Americans, and two to Hispanic Americans.
Of the 426 Medals of Honor awarded during the post-Civil War Indian Wars (1865–1890), African American troops received 18. Fifteen Medals of Honor went to Native Americans who served as cavalry scouts, and two went to Jewish American soldiers.
During the Spanish-American War (1898), 110 Medals of Honor were awarded, with six going to African Americans.
In World War I, the United States fielded about 2 million troops in France. Approximately 350,000 were African Americans. Once again they were organized into segregated units commanded by white officers and for the most part confined to support roles away from the front lines, though this time African Americans filled the junior-officer ranks. When a German offensive threatened to rupture the French lines in early 1918, some black regiments were temporarily attached to the French army to stop the German advance. One such unit was the 369th Infantry Regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters.” It fought with such distinction during that period that the entire unit was awarded the Croix de Guerre and 171 members received France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor.
When World War I ended, the United States awarded a total of 118 Medals of Honor: five went to Jewish Americans, one to an Hispanic American, and none to African Americans.
During World War II, approximately 13 million men and women served in the military. African Americans were the largest minority, with approximately one million. At war’s end, 432 Medals of Honor had been awarded. Thirty-eight went to Hispanic Americans, ten to Native Americas, three to Jewish Americans, two to Asian Pacific Americans, and none to African Americans.
Because a two-year statute of limitations regarding presentations existed, it appeared that a review to correct inequities was impossible. Then, in 1987, Congressmen Joe DioGuardi and Mickey Leland, while conducting research on another matter, discovered a case file dated 1918, containing the Medal of Honor recommendation for Corporal Freddie Stowers, an African American. Stowers served in Company C of the 371st Infantry Regiment. On September 28, 1918, his company was one of the lead units in an attack in the Champagne Marne sector of northern France. Corporal Stowers was mortally wounded while leading a desperate assault against German troops.
It was determined that the file had been misplaced. Congress passed legislation lifting the statute of limitations and the case was officially revived. In a White House ceremony presided over by President George H. W. Bush on April 4, 1991—attended by Stowers’s two sisters and his great-grandnephew, who had served in the first Gulf War as a staff sergeant in the 101st Airborne—Corporal Freddie Stowers posthumously received his Medal of Honor. The army subsequently asked Shaw University, the nation’s oldest black college, to research and prepare a study “to determine if there was a racial disparity in the way Medal of Honor recipients were selected” during World War II. The university’s team brought to the army’s attention ten cases where African American soldiers had received the Distinguished Service Cross instead of the Medal of Honor. The army determined that seven of the cases should be upgraded. Congress passed the necessary legislation and, on January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton presented these medals. Of the seven, only one, Vernon J. Baker, was alive to receive his Medal of Honor.
A similar review in 1996 focused on Asian-Pacific Americans. In 1998, an army review board determined that twenty-two individuals needed their decorations upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Thirteen of these were awarded to men of the “Purple Heart Battalion,” the 442nd Infantry Regiment. One of those thirteen was Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
In 2001, Congress ordered that the army conduct a similar review for Jewish American and Hispanic American servicemen. In 2005, Holocaust survivor and Korean War veteran Tibor Rubin received his Medal of Honor from President George W. Bush.
Since then no additional official reviews have been conducted. Any new cases would have to be brought to the government’s attention by private individuals or outside organizations and would be assessed on a case by case basis.