AfriGeneas Military Research Forum
Mr. Bennie J. McRae - Local Historian Recognized
Article posted with the permission of the author & Mr. McRae. Photo is of Bennie McRae at the ceremony honoring USCT veteran, Joshua Dunbar, father of Paul Laurence Dunbar at the Dayton National Cemetery. Mr. McRae was a "primary" participant for this monument being placed at the gravesite.
Local Historian Shares Information About Blacks in the Military
By: Brenda Cochran
To listen to a gentleman by the name of Bennie J. McRae, one would think that he is a walking encyclopedia on the subject of Blacks in the Military. Although his own personal experience in the military was an important aspect of his interest and inspiration in researching the history of the Black Military, there are other reasons that have exemplified his wide enthusiasm and expertise in the story of a people who in spite of injustice are today the most patriotic of all Americans. For Bennie and others that have an interest in how Blacks are portrayed in service in the military, Mr. McRae in sharing his research of this most important and interesting subject, reports that for Blacks, the suffering that they endured in service to their country should be remembered and those men need to be proud. He is anxious that the rich chronicle of Blacks in the Military should be maintained and cherished.
Mr. McRae is a native of Louisville, Alabama who served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War. His tenure began in August of 1951 and ended in July 1955. Mr. McRae worked as an operations specialist as well as holding various training and management positions with the United State Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration. Following his retirement after thirty-six years of service, and during the past twenty years, Mr. McRae has focused his research on the African American Military Experience. He has four websites “Lest We Forget”, “Making of the United States of America”, “African American Military History” and “Resting Places of United States Colored Civil War Soldiers and Sailors.”
When asked how he became so engrossed in this particular research, he said, “I became interested when I was in high school in Selma, Alabama. I had a history teacher who closed his books, sat on the edge of his desk and lectured the class on Black History. He spoke mostly about the Civil War in Selma and how the Union Army came and freed the slaves and the problems that people had. He really spoke about the Black History that could not be found in textbooks. I went to Tuskegee Institute for two years and served in the Air Force for four years, and when I returned, I attended Alabama State College for a few quarters and met another teacher who did the same thing. He would sit and lecture us. He talked about the Reconstruction Era and the contributions that Blacks had made and never got credit for it.”
Sharing additional information about his emerging interest in the study of Blacks in the Military, Bennie said that when he was in the service, he would go to the library and became fascinated with the history of World War II. He read every book he could find on the subject and never read anything about Black participation in this war. His reading was mostly about the great generals such as Eisenhower, Macarthur, and Patton. According to Mr. McRae, “Sometimes I would read about the Black pilots before they were called the Tuskegee Airmen and I felt that there had to be more information about those that served in World War II because I actually had quite a few relatives that served in World War II.”
Leaving Alabama State, Bennie got a job at Craig Air Force Base as a civilian. He remained for a year working on the flight line, inspecting and issuing parachutes and oxygen masks to pilots. He then came to Ohio in 1957 to work for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which was later changed to Federal Aviation Administration. He retired in June of 1989.
The most motivating factors in his pursuit of learning more about Blacks in the military came from a woman he met in Kansas. Expressing his interest in learning more about his people and their contributions, he was told that if he wanted to know more – he would have to find the information himself. He visited the National Archives and historic sites. According to Bennie McRae, “Some of the information I discovered was amazing. Although it was well documented, no one ever used it so I started publishing a quarterly newsletter with my brother in Tuskegee. It was then that I began to start the websites and posting research and data.”
Presently Mr. McRae is working with a gentleman from Virginia who has been taking photographs of gravestones that show the date of death for Black Civil War soldiers buried at Hampton National Cemetery, part of which is located on the campus of Hampton University. This project began in 2008 and so far they have collected and posted over 1400 gravestone images. Another gentleman from Kansas has sent McRae images of Civil War soldiers buried in about fifty cemeteries in Kansas.
Mr. McRae shared a wealth of information about Blacks in the Civil War noting that the majority of these soldiers were ex slaves. He said, “About one hundred and seventy-eight thousand served in the Union Army and almost three quarters of those came from the slave states. This is a well documented tool that tells us that Blacks died during the Civil War in their quest for getting rid of slavery.”
There were some general characteristics about the Blacks in Military. When they first went in the service, they were illiterate. Many of them ran away and escaped and went into the Union lines and there were no strict policies at the time. The commanders would turn these men back to the slave owners. McRae added this. “General Benjamin Butler, a Union Army general at Fort Monroe refused to allow the owners to come to Fort Monroe to claim slaves declaring them contrabands of war.”
Most of the soldiers had been working as laborers in the fields on the plantations and the docks. Bennie said that the best he could characterize these individuals were that they were illiterate, but they were not dumb. “They knew that they wanted their freedom.”
African Americans in Bennie’s mind are the most patriotic. “They were always ready to go to war, but the problems that kept them away were the prejudices and the underclass status of them in regards to the total society.”
The military history of African Americans spans from the arrival of the first black slaves during the colonial history of the United States to the present day. There has been no war fought by or within the United States in which African Americans did not participate.
Visit the websites done by Mr. Bennie McRae who is passionate and committed to supporting educational programs that include the history of the US Colored Troops. In 2006, he was honored at the eighteenth Annual Veterans Braintrust Awards for recognition of his service and dedication to or in support of the United States Armed Forces. He has spoken to groups about this subject and is hopeful that all the information available will not be lost for future generations.
Bennie's website is located at:
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