Prologue Magazine

Documenting African Americans in the Records of Military Agencies

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Lisha Penn

Research interest in military records relating to African Americans has increased steadily over the past twenty years, a phenomenon that can be directly attributed to such factors as the television miniseries Roots and the motion picture Glory. In the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), there are vast quantities of records in numerous record groups (RGs) pertaining to the participation of African Americans in the military. But archivists' ability to respond effectively to reference requests is hampered by the lack of finding aids on records of military agencies, particularly records created immediately before and after World War II. Even when such aids exist, they are fragmentary or too general to determine if the described records are pertinent to the topic of African Americans. Many NARA staff members create internal notes on specific military records regarding African Americans for their own use, but this information is not available agency-wide. Because information is scattered, researchers and staff cannot easily access the records.

I have been working on a project to create a basic reference work, a reference information paper (RIP), on records of military agencies relating to African Americans. Although at least one attempt was made in 1973 to address this problem for much older records in the form of Reference Information Paper No. 63, Data Relating to Negro Military Personnel in the 19th Century, no broad-based resource for African American military records exists for the post-World War I through the Korean war period.

As a starting point for the project, I completed a preliminary survey of the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States (1995) to highlight the most relevant military records relating to African Americans and compiled a list of those series. Reference archivists reviewed this list and amended it with some additional series. A most helpful development was the discovery of the working papers of former NARA staff member Dr. Robert Clarke, who had done some preliminary work on a finding aid to military records relating to African Americans. Clarke's finding aid had been intended to complement Debra Newman's Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives, but his project never came to fruition. Relevant information from Clarke's papers will be incorporated into the current project.

This newly produced resource on African Americans in military records will respond to researchers' sustained interest in World War II and will enable NARA to demonstrate the relevance of federal records to people of color. It is an attempt to create a self-explanatory finding aid that both researchers and NARA staff members can use.

The RIP will cover the post-World War I period to the end of the Korean conflict, when military agencies' records relating to African Americans became more decentralized and the military services themselves were desegregated. The finding aid will describe textual records in the Washington, D.C., area.

An introduction will describe the record groups relating to African Americans in several clusters: Air Force, Old Army, Modern Army, Defense and Related Activities, Old Navy, Modern Navy, and Military Related. Lists of pertinent series in each record group will be annotated to highlight the relevance of each series to the topic, and the most important series will include box lists. An index will complete the reference information paper.

My preliminary survey indicated that the following record groups in each military cluster contain relevant material.

Air Force: Record Group (RG) 18, Army Air Forces; RG 340, Office of the Secretary of the Air; and RG 341, Headquarters U.S. Air Force (Air Staff).

Old Army: RG 77, Office of the Chief of Engineers; RG 92, Office of the Quartermaster General; RG 107, Office of the Secretary of War; RG 111, Office of the Chief Signal Officer; RG 112, Office of the Surgeon General (Army); RG 120, American Expeditionary Forces (World War I); RG 153, Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army); RG 159, Office of the Inspector General (Army); RG 165, War Department General and Special Staffs; RG 168, National Guard Bureau; RG 247, Office of the Chief of Chaplains; RG 391, U.S. Regular Army Mobile Units, 1821–1942; RG 394, U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1920–1942; and RG 395, U.S. Army Overseas Operations and Commands.

Modern Army: RG 160, Headquarters Army Service Forces; RG 260, U.S. Occupation Headquarters, World War II; RG 319, Army Staff; RG 331, Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II; RG 335, Office of the Secretary of the Army; RG 336, Office of the Chief of Transportation; RG 337, Headquarters Army Ground Forces; RG 338, U.S. Army Commands; RG 389, Office of the Provost Marshal General; and RG 407, Adjutant General's Office, 1917–.

Defense and Related Activities: RG 218, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff; RG 225, Joint Army and Navy Boards and Committees; and RG 330, Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Old Navy: RG 19, Bureau of Ships; RG 24, Bureau of Naval Personnel; RG 38, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations; RG 52, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery; RG 71, Bureau of Yards and Docks; RG 80, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1798–1947; RG 125, Office of the Judge Advocate General (Navy); RG 127, U.S. Marine Corps; and RG 181, Naval Districts and Shore Establishments.

Modern Navy: RG 32, U.S. Shipping Board; and RG 428, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1947-.

Military Related Record Groups from the Genealogical Cluster: RG 117, American Battle Monuments Commission; RG 147, Selective Service System, 1940-; and RG 163, Selective Service System (World War I).

The following is a sample chapter in progress from the RIP. It discusses Records of the Army Air Forces, Record Group 18. The historic context in which African Americans are referred to as either colored or Negro is reflected in each series description.

Administrative History

The Army Air Forces (AAF) was established in the War Department to consist of the Air Force Combat (AFCC) and the Air Corps, by revisions of Army Regulation 95-5, June 20, 1941. AAF provided advice and assistance to the secretary of war and other elements of the War Department on all aspects of land-based air offense and defense; coordinated the design, development, and procurement of aircraft and equipment; constructed and maintained air bases and air support facilities; and provided training and administrative support to Army Air personnel. Abolished by Transfer Order 1, Office of the Secretary of Defense, September 26, 1947, implementing reorganization provisions of the National Security Act of 1947 (61 Stat. 495), July 26,1947.

Historical Background

Although African Americans had long served in the racially segregated United States Army, prior to World War II there were no African American pilots in the AAF or its immediate predecessor, the Air Corps. The AAF resisted previous efforts to enlist black airmen with the claim that there were no black pilots in the United States.1 There was a prevailing belief within the War Department and the AAF in general that black males lacked the aptitude to be military pilots. It was not until the passage of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (and pressure exerted from the black community) that the AAF along with other military services was required to enlist black males in proportion to their total population percentage (about 10 percent).

The act prohibited discrimination by race or color in the selecting and training of all males for the armed services. Reacting almost immediately to this new act, the War Department issued its own policy, which stipulated that "the services of Negroes will be utilized on a fair and equitable basis."2 At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the AAF nevertheless was instructing only a small number of African American air cadets at Tuskegee Institute (Tuskegee, AL) under its Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Upon completion of basic training and advanced training that combined aerobatics and gunnery, these African American male air cadets, better known as "Tuskegee Airmen," were assigned to the newly created 99th Pursuit (later Fighter) Squadron that was based at nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field. Following the combat success of the 99th, more African American male AAF units such as the 100th, 301st, and 302d Squadrons were subsequently formed, trained, and entered into aerial combat in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations in Europe. African American men were also trained in other areas such as base security detachments, aviation quartermaster truck companies, and airbase transportation platoons.

The history of the Army Air Forces policy governing race, and the combat histories of the African American 99th Fighter Squadron and other units, are well documented in the Records of the Army Air Forces (RG 18). Moreover, the reactions of the African American community to the utilization of black airmen, and the opinions of white communities to having black airmen stationed in their localities, are also included in the RG 18 records. The records of particular interest to researchers are the decimal correspondence files for 291.2 (Race), 333 (Inspection), and 353 (Training) as related to African Americans in the AAF. Researchers will also find the project files of various air fields such as Tuskegee, MacDill, Maxwell, and numerous others as pertinent sources for additional information on African Americans.

Record Descriptions

1. Entry 7a—World War II Combat Operations Reports, 1942–1946. 3 ft. 6 in.
Arranged numerically by Army Air Force combat group and thereunder chronologically by date.

  1. 79th Fighter Group: Boxes 2339–2344.
  2. 332d Fighter Group: Boxes 2363–2364.
  3. 99th Fighter Squadron: Box 941.
    The records consist of consolidated mission or narrative mission reports, daily operations reports, and statistical summaries for the above-mentioned all-African American fighter groups. They document the type of mission, mission report, time, date, AAF unit providing cover/protection for, number and weight of bombs aboard, target or area sighted, summary of results, and the number of sorties completed.


2. Entry 52a—Periodicals, 1932-1946. 1 volume. Arranged chronologically by date.

  1. Volume 28, Number 2 (February 1945) Air Force (Official Journal of the U.S. Army Air Force); Box 7 (pp. 62-63).
    A short article on the 332d Fighter Group, "A picture-reporting job on one of the Mediterranean's oldest fighter outfits."


3. Entry 166—Central Decimal Files, 1917–1938 (General Correspondence, 1917–1938). 1 in. Arranged numerically by War Department decimal file number.

  1. Decimal File 322.9 (Negro Detachment): Box 505.
    The records relate to authorizations for Negro service detachment schools such as in artillery and infantry at various air camps and flying school detachments. There are references to the use of Negro males as laborers, bricklayers, and construction workers and their temporary assignment to assist the British overseas in 1918. They also contain information on the use of Negroes as "aerial observers" but not as pilots during the post-World War I and pre-World War II era. A recommendation was made that any inquiries received regarding the possible use of Negroes as pilots stipulate that there was "no authority at present for induction of Negroes into [the] Aviation Service as no colored squadrons are being organized or contemplated."


4. Entry 292a—Central Decimal Files {General Correspondence}, Oct. 1942–May 1944. 1 ft. 6 in. Arranged numerically by War Department decimal file number.

  1. Decimal File 291.2 (Race): Box 529.
    The records relate to training and training schools, public opposition to establishing Negro units in certain communities (such as Spokane, WA), and incidents of racial discrimination against Negro troops and Negro officers stationed at certain Army air fields.
  2. Decimal File 333.1 (Miscellaneous: File labeled Tuskegee, Ala/Tuskegee Army Air Field): Box 785.
    The records concern the communication and technical inspections of colored troops at Tuskegee Army Air Field (one inspection was done by Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.) and the training of colored pilots in reports that cite irregularities, deficiencies, conclusions, recommendations.
  3. Decimal File 353 (Training Misc.): Boxes 888–889.
    The records pertain to the training of Negro troops (aviation cadets) at various Army air fields and the transfer and assignment of such troops once trained. There are references to the partially trained enlisted Negro men being retained at Kessler Field, MS, an outline of requirements for the Negro program, and a conference at Tuskegee in which Negro college presidents were invited to discuss formulating plans for "integrating aviation education into public schools and colleges."


5. Entry 294a: Central Decimal Files, Oct. 1942-1944 (Security-Classified General Correspondence, Oct. 1942–Dec. 1944). 10 in. Arranged numerically by War Department decimal file number.

  1. a. Decimal File 291.2 (Race): Boxes 103–104.
    The records concern allegations of discrimination lodged by Negro troops at various air fields such as Carlsbad, NM; Fort Stockton, CA; Amarillo, TX; Sioux Falls, SD; Westover, MA; and Selfridge, MI; and subsequent reports following the investigations of such allegations. There are also references to race riots at Camp Van Dorn, MS; Camp Stewart, GA; March Field, CA; and Fort Bliss, TX; training and assigning Negro troops; and the resignation of Judge William H. Hastie (civilian aide to the secretary of war). They also contain information on the "Negro Fighter Program" (especially the 99th and the 332d); and opposition or support to the presence of Negro soldiers in mostly white communities.


6. Entry 294b—Bulky Files, Oct. 1942–1944 {Security-Classified General Correspondence, Oct. 1942–Dec. 1944}. 2 in. Arranged numerically by War Department decimal file number.

  1. Decimal File 291.2 (Race): Box 54.
    The records are mostly concerned with allegations of discriminatory treatment of Negro soldiers at various Army air fields such as MacDill, FL; Brooks Field, TX; and Westover Field, MA.


7. Entry 295—Project Files: Air Fields, 1939–1942. 1 ft. 2 in. Arranged alphabetically by name of army air field and thereunder numerically by War Department decimal file number.

  1. Tuskegee Air Army Field (Files labeled miscellaneous, inspections, construction, roadways and runways, landing fields, and training): Boxes 1826–1828.
    The records relate to the training of Negro troops at Tuskegee Army Air Field and the assignment of subsequent graduates. There are references to requests for civilian photographers to photograph civilian flying at Tuskegee (request denied), requisition and procurement of supplies and equipment repairs, internal requests desiring to know the need for Negro instructors, requests for colored medical administrators, and technical inspections of Negro units. The records also regard Tuskegee Institute's contract with Tuskegee Army Air Field, questionnaires "Memorandum of Personnel" of applicants (some photos included), and the construction of various buildings (housing, hospitals, etc.) and landing sites.
  2. b. Maxwell Army Air Field (File labeled 333.1—Inspection Reports): Box 1567.
    These are two inspection reports for the colored troops at Maxwell Army Air Field with references to the units inspected, buildings and grounds, welfare and morale of troops, and conclusions and recommendations (recommendation made by Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., to move the small portion of Negro troops at this air field to Tuskegee, but the request was denied).
  3. c. MacDill Army Air Field (File labeled 333.1—Inspection Reports): Box 1530.
    The records pertain to an investigation of the condition of colored troops at this air field in Tampa, FL, how it was initiated, matters investigated, facts, the treatment by civilian city police, treatment by white military police, inadequacy of transportation to and from the city, and distinctions made between white and colored soldiers stationed at the air field. The records also include conclusions, recommendations, and testimonies.

The finished reference information paper will contain similar chapters for forty-six other record groups. Compilation of the RIP is scheduled to be completed in November 1997, and the anticipated publication date is likely to be that winter. Researchers and NARA staff alike will have a valuable tool that will unite previously scattered information into one resource. An ever-growing number of people interested in military records relating to African Americans for the period between World War I and the end of the Korean conflict will have easier access to the records they need, and the scholarship on the subject will be greatly enriched. Moreover, the publication will demonstrate the relevance of federal records to people of color by documenting the interaction of Africans Americans and the federal government during the course of two major military conflicts of the twentieth century.


1. Elliot V. Converse III, Robert K. Griffith, Daniel K. Gibran, Richard H. Kohn, and John A. Cash, "The Medal of Honor and African Americans in the United States Army During World War II" (U.S. Army Military Award Branch, January 1995), p. 24.

2. Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Integration of the Armed Services, 19401965 (1981), p. 18.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.