Black Americans have a long history of serving in the U.S. military, dating back to the Revolutionary War when around 9,000 Black soldiers joined the Continental Army. During the Civil War, there were approximately 186,000 Black soldiers fighting in the Union Army. Black Americans have fought for the United States in every armed conflict since then. 

However, Black troops had been denied the ability to attain leadership positions at the same pace as their white counterparts, facing racial discrimination and segregation. Black officers haven’t always been able to reach elevated leadership positions. 

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order to integrate the military. The last Black-only unit was disbanded in 1954. Until then, because Black Americans served in segregated units, it wasn’t possible for them to hold military-wide leadership positions. Without Black mentors and sponsors, it would take decades for Black officers to rise through the ranks.  

In fact, it took nearly forty years since the military was desegregated for a Black officer to reach the highest military position in the Department of Defense. In 1991, General Colin Powell was appointed to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense (DOD).  

According to a 2020 Department of Defense demographic study, Blacks make up 9% of active-duty officers, but only 6.5% of generals. Even so, the Black military leadership picture has improved.  

In 2024, Black Americans sit at the DOD’s highest echelons, with the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a retired general, being the most prominent. Additionally, General Charles Q. Brown Jr. was appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 2023. General Anthony Cotton has been serving as Commander of the United States Strategic Command since December 2022. 

There are several other Black leaders in the DOD, including Brigadier General Terrence Adams, who is Deputy Principal Cyber Advisor (DPCA) to the Secretary of Defense and Senior Military Advisor for Cyber Policy. Lieutenant General Telita Crossland is the director of the Defense Health Agency. 

The highest ranking Black officer in the U.S. Army is General Michael X. Garrett, who serves as Commanding General, U.S. Army Forces Command. 

In Maryland, Governor Wes Moore appointed Maj. General Janeen Birckhead to serve as adjutant general, the highest military position in the state. In this role, Birckhead is responsible for the combat readiness of 4,600 members of Maryland’s military. Her position makes Birckhead the only woman in the country to lead a state military force. 

In just the past two years, the U.S. military has promoted Black officers to its highest and most visible ranks. As these Black leaders are able to mentor and sponsor younger members of the military, there will surely be more Black officers joining the leadership. 

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