Story by Sgt. Jesse Houk, 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
SPRINGFIELD – Illinois has a special connection to the African-American History Month celebration. After all, the Great Emancipator, President Abraham Lincoln, served in the Illinois Militia and began his political career in Illinois. With the support of like-minded people, he challenged public opinion and sparked a civil rights revolution still felt today. African-American Soldiers in Illinois played important roles in most major conflicts since the Civil War.
“African-Americans have overcome many obstacles within the military,” said Adriana Schroeder, the Illinois National Guard’s command historian. “The first obstacle was actually being able to pick up arms and fight. The second was to have black leadership within their all black units. The third struggle was integration into the military to where African-Americans fought alongside white Soldiers.”
The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry was formed during the Civil War to guard wagons and train depots, said Schroeder. They fought in one of the final battles of the Civil War, in the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Va.
In World War I the African American 8th Infantry was re-designated the 370th Infantry and fought under the French. It was the only unit entirely commanded by black officers. The 8th Infantry continued its proud history during World War II, reorganized into the 2-184th Field Artillery, by being a vital part of capturing the Rhine River town of Wesel.
The lineage of the 8th Infantry lives today with the 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment of the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
“I have to applaud the efforts of so many because although we have a unique and rich history we didn’t get there by ourselves,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Howard O. Robinson, of Olympia Fields, the Illinois National Guard’s senior enlisted adviser. “I think about the Great Emancipator and others who fought for equality. We have made significant progress, but if it wasn’t for those civil rights leaders and many brave whites who believed in the cause, equality in the military wouldn’t be where it is today.”
Robinson witnessed, firsthand, the progress black Soldiers have made over the years. His father served in the all-black 761st Tank Battalion in Patton’s 3rd Army as a tank sergeant. His uncle served as a noncommissioned officer in the Korean War and another uncle served in Vietnam, later becoming a brigadier general.
Robinson, an African-American, who split his youth between inner-city Chicago with his parents and rural Hunnewell, Mo., with his grandparents and two aunts, is a living example of the achievements our country celebrates in February.
“I have seen improvements in equality,” said Robinson. “We are a diverse organization and there are opportunities out there. We want to make sure everyone has a fair stake in our organization.”
Robinson said equality within the military, and even his own success, would not have been possible if it were not for white Soldiers believing in their black counterparts and opening the necessary doors.
Robinson joined the Illinois Army National Guard in 1983 and worked his way up the ranks. As he did, he saw things that needed improvement and worked to resolve those issues.
“I felt like instead of complaining about it, I needed to position myself to really do something about it,” said Robinson. “That was the turning point in me becoming a part of the solution.”
Robinson now looks to assist younger Soldiers in accomplishing their goals much like key individuals throughout his career helped him. Although the Illinois National Guard celebrates Black History Month, every person who puts on the uniform is equally valued.
“Today, every Soldier bleeds red, white and blue for America no matter the color of their skin,” said Schroeder.