After the Civil War, as national leaders hurried to consolidate and expand their reunited empire, Congress approved the largest standing force the United States had fielded in its history. This regular army included, for the first time, African American regiments—the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry, and the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry— initially filled with hundreds of formerly enslaved men who were otherwise maligned in almost every corner of American society. As armed representatives of the state, the “Black regulars” found unusual equality in the army and performed critical roles in service to the country’s military aspirations. They helped secure United States empire in the transcontinental West and along the Mexican border, and then in the Caribbean and the Pacific. They became heroes in the Black press, and indeed,to many of their white officers, who endorsed them for combat decorations and sang their praises. For half a century, Black regulars aided in the enlargement of what expansionists by 1900 were calling the Greater United States.
But what might have been a path to equal treatment and patriotic credibility for Black soldiers instead inflamed white supremacist outrage. Over time, the fact of armed African Americans proved intolerable to many white people, from local citizens to military officials to some officers in the four regiments. Here was the uniformed Black man’s burden—he was both agent and target of white supremacy and state authority. And when bigotry and violence became unbearable, some Black regulars took on a third role as rebels against Jim Crow. In the worst but not first rupture of these impossible contradictions, men in the Twenty-Fourth Infantry staged a deadly uprising against police brutality and racism in Houston, Texas, in July 1917.
Black Man’s Burden: Jim Crow and Mutiny in an Age of Empire tells the epic, globe-spanning story of the rise and fall of the Black regiments. The book centers them in a revised history of American empire and military growth during a pivotal half-century for both, following the Black regulars as they abetted settler colonialism in the West; hemispheric dominion in Cuba and Mexico; and global empire in Hawai’i and the Philippines. For five decades, these men projected American power, attracted white supremacist violence, and responded with acts of both accommodation and resistance.Their story ends in Houston, where the rebellion of infantrymen in the Twenty-Fourth led to the largest murder trial inUnited States history and the execution of nineteen Black soldiers.