This week on In Black America, producer and host John L. Hanson, Jr. presents a 2019 conversation with Dr. Robert F. Jefferson, Jr., Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico and author of Brothers in Valor: Battlefield Stories of the 89 African Americans Awarded The Medal of Honor.
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Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:00:22] Yes and no. For one thing, many of the World War two individuals and also families are very close knit. So what I had to do was basically introduce myself and then also talk about what the nature of my work was all about. And then I also had to relay my own family history. Like they would ask me this when I first met them and say, Where’s your family from? That was the first question from both of them. What was, you know. Where was my family from? And also, what did your what did your grandfather and what you felt? What is your father did that that was really the way to death, that we broke the ice on having any kind of conversation about the war altogether.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:01:01] Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. Associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico and author of Brothers Invalid Battlefield Stories of the 89 African-Americans awarded the Medal of Honor, published by Lyons Press since the Civil War. African American soldiers have been serving this country with distinction. Brothers in Valor is a history lesson on the 89 African American soldiers who were awarded the nation’s highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. The history lesson cover those courageous servicemen from the Civil War to the Vietnam Theater. Jefferson paints a vivid picture of African American soldiers who carry the flag of freedom, but had to face the fight to be recognized as patriots, heroes and leaders. I’m John L. Hanson Jr. and welcome to another edition of In Black America. On this week’s program, Brothers in Valor, Battlefield Stories of the 89 African-Americans awarded the Medal of Honor with Dr. Robert F. Jefferson, In Black America.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:02:04] Well, this book largely grew out of my first book because I had I had questions about how the public saw African American soldiers during the Second World War and also how did they perceive their conduct in the face of battle. For me, I really struggled trying to answer that question. And I also wanted to see if there were any kind of historical undercurrents to that question. So that led me to thinking about, okay, all of these men who have been recognized for these these acts of gallantry in the face of battle. And also, what did they think about notions like and also definitions of courage and things like that? Our community is very steep, but they, I think, is steep in applying conduct to basically write. And I think that that’s something that they carried forward from basically the Civil War even down through the present day that we live right now.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:02:59] Dr. Robert F Jefferson Jr has long been interested in African-Americans involvement with military service. His previous books focused on the relationship between African-American GIs and their communities during World War Two and Fighting for Hope, African-American Truth and the 93rd Infantry Division in World War Two and postwar America. In his latest book, Brothers in Valor, Jefferson presents the 89 African-Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor. Consider this These African-American soldiers march forward when all odds were against them, both on the battlefield and off. They reshaped the very definition of courage under fire during some of the most harrowing moments in U.S. military history. The heroes Jefferson write about in his book face certain death with nerves of steel without flinching. In turn, their courage and determination left an indelible mark on the American landscape. Recently, In Black America, I spoke with Jefferson.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:04:01] Well, I was born in Darlington, South Carolina. My family moved from there to, uh, to to Norfolk, Virginia, where basically I, I grew up. I spent my formative years and went to school at the University of, uh. At the University of Michigan graduate school. But before that, I was I basically went to school at Elon College in North Carolina. So I’ve been I’ve been pretty much all over the place, I think.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:04:29] Any brothers and sisters?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:04:30] Yeah, I got. Oh, my gosh. I got. I got. I got two brothers and I got four sisters.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:04:38] So I guess at home growing up, it was never a dull moment.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:04:42] No, it wasn’t was. You can ask my mom about that too. Every time she walked in the door, it was always something.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:04:47] What were some of your favorite subjects while you were matriculating to high school?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:04:51] For me, my favorite subject was, uh, I. It was actually political science. I had a high school teacher who. He had a way of basically bringing, um, bringing government to life for us. And that’s what really got me interested in teaching, because he would come into the classroom and you didn’t know, you didn’t know what to what to be prepared for. He asked you to. Just bring your brain with you and that’s it.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:17] And what led you to major in history?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:05:21] Well, my father, um. He taught African history. Mm hmm. And in South Carolina, he was. He was actually a master school teacher in South Carolina. And, um, he he was also somebody who was who had a tendency to captivate students. He would take me to his classes when I was, you know, when I was growing up. And I sit in the back of the room and I’d watch I just watch how students basically hung on his every word as he was talking. I mean, for for a kid growing up, you know, you think your parents are good. What they’re doing is not really, um, it’s not really extraordinary. But as the years went by, I realized that he was doing something phenomenal in the classroom, and I wanted to. I wanted a piece of that.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:06:07] What led you to Wayne State University?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:06:10] Wayne State University. Um, i, i, i, I was actually hired there by someone. I was. I was recruited to go there by someone who actually was the subject of my first book, Fighting for Hope. African-American. Uh, true. So the 93rd Infantry Division in World War Two and, uh, and postwar America. Right. He he. I met him for the first time, and he said, you know what? We’re going to try to see if we can get you to come here. And at that time, when I was in graduate school, I thought he was just pulling my leg. But soon enough, like a couple of years later, he was he he came to me and said, you know what? We want you to come and do a job, too. So I did that. And, and that’s how my Wayne State, um, experience started. I mean, he was waiting was a great place to be, by the way.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:06:59] How long did you stay at Wayne State?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:07:01] I stayed there for three years.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:07:04] The reason I ask that question, because I’m from Detroit. So how did you like living in Detroit?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:07:08] Oh, it was. It was great. The one thing about Wayne State is that you get you get nontraditional students coming into your classes and the stories they told about, you know, what life was like in Detroit. I tell you, it was almost like a history lesson every time that I stepped into the classroom with them. And I learned I think they learned I learned just as much from them as they learned from me. I learned what cities like Detroit, what makes them tick. Mm hmm. And, um, it it just was a phenomenal experience.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:07:39] What led you to the University of New Mexico?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:07:41] Well, I came here as a result of, um, basically, uh, I applied for the job here as the director of the African Studies program. The thing is, I didn’t know anything about New Mexico. I didn’t know anything about. I didn’t know anything about the Southwest when I first got here. And, um, I found that I. I was learning on the fly as I got here. I mean, I just. For one thing, I fell in love with the Southwest. I love being here. And I also, like, um. I also like, uh, the University of New Mexico, because the student body here is quite unique. The things that I teach in the classroom, they have a, they have a way of taking the things that we talk about during our discussions. And then they go home and, and I see they’re having these discussions when they go home to and go to their dorms and then they come back and they have these really interesting collective questions about what life was like during the giving period and so forth. And then they also apply it to their own lived experiences. I think that’s that that in itself is really fascinating.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:44] Have you grown to appreciate the Indian culture that’s in New Mexico?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:08:48] Oh, yes, I have. My wife and I, every chance we get, we try to go and do these field trips around the state here to see this, to see the landscape, and then also to try to imagine what it was like to live here at the turn of the century. You know.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:09:03] Obviously, this book that you’ve written is not the first book on military. What initially sparked an interest in African-Americans in the military?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:09:12] Well, my grandfather served in World War Two, and he went when I was growing up. He used to tell me stories about what it was like to be in the segregated Army in the 1940s. And he the way he talked about it was he always it always came back to, I think, community and also family, because for him it was really important for him and he was one of the one of the first people to basically leave home and my family. So when he as he was talking about these things, I became fascinated in what military life meant for basically the collective home for African Americans as a whole. And that’s what led me to write in my first book.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:09:51] Was it difficult in and in researching this particular subject?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:09:56] Yes and no. For one thing, um, many of the World War two individuals and also families are very close knit. So what I had to do was basically introduce myself and then also talk about what the nature of my work was all about. And then I also had to relay my own sense. The history. Like they would ask me this when I first met them and say, Where’s your family from? That was the first question. All that from most of them. What was, you know, where was my family from? And also what did you what did your grandfather and what you felt what did your father do that that was really the way that that we broke the ice on having any kind of conversation about the war altogether.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:10:38] And the thing. If you’re just joining us, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. And you listening to In Black America from KUT Radio. And speaking of Dr. Robert Jefferson Jr., associate professor in the Department of History at the University of New Mexico and author of Brothers in Valor Battlefield Stories of the 89 African-Americans awarded the Medal of Honor. Dr. Jefferson, what led you to write this particular book?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:11:04] Well, this book largely grew out of my first book because I had questions about it. I had questions about how the public saw African-American soldiers during the Second World War and also how did they perceive their conduct in the face of battle. Mm hmm. For me, I really struggled trying to answer that question. And I also wanted to see if there were any kind of historical undercurrents to that question. So that led me to thinking about, okay, all of these men who have been recognized for these these acts of gallantry in the face of battle. And also, what did they think about notions like and also definitions of courage and things like that? Our community is very steep, but I think it’s steep in applying conduct to basically. Right. And I think that that’s something that they carried forward from basically the Civil War even down through the present day that we live right now.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:12:02] I found it interesting, which was the history lesson for myself, is that prior to it actually being named as we know it today, the Medal of Honor, it was called something else. Can you take us through that progression?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:12:15] Yeah, it was for many of those who didn’t. First of all, it did not get the I guess, the designation of the Medal of Honor until the Civil War. It was something that was you know, it was thought about during the American Revolutionary War. The Continental Congress, in fact, was trying to figure out ways in which to strike special medals for acts of gallantry, for basically their for their generals, people like George Washington and and and Horatio Gates and also Daniel Morgan and others. But then later on, they started thinking about, okay, what about the business of foot soldiers who basically stayed in the ranks? So they started. They looked. By the time the Mexican-American war rolled around, they started thinking about how could they basically acknowledge everyday soldiers for the things that they were doing and in the face of fierce fighting. So but about a civil war, the whole notion of what honor meant and what courage meant was then codified, I think. And Abraham Lincoln said that he wanted to do something else with that. So that’s how the Medal of Honor came into being.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:13:21] When you sat down to write this particular work, were there any particular avenues you definitely wanted to pursue?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:13:29] Oh, yes. I wanted to look at. For me, I wanted to understand the two periods the World War two period and the Vietnam War period. And the reason why is because it was personal for me. And I think, as I said before, my grandfather served in the Second World War, but I also had some uncles who served in the Vietnam War. And the stories they told were quite it was strikingly different from what my grandfather talked about. And I wanted to understand. So how did this these ideas about basically gallantry, courage, honor? How did they basically say how did they change over a 20 year period? I mean, the way my uncles talked about it, it was about it was about saving lives and it was about it. It was about basically being able to come home in one piece and have their brothers who were fighting next to them come home in one piece. For my grandfather, they were basically fighting for their own fight for something much more than that. So I wanted to understand that there’s a continuum there that that I think we we really ought to pay attention to when we start thinking about this. The African-Americans serving just serving in overseas operations.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:14:34] Tell us about the first recipient of the Medal of Honor. William H.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:14:39] Carney was somebody who fascinated me from the very beginning because he was somebody who was he was very outspoken about about the about the Civil War, what it was all about. He knew from the very beginning he and those who basically went in from the very beginning, they knew that they were fighting for much more than just fighting for much more than just themselves. They were fighting for their community. They were fighting for They were just basically fighting for freedom. And with that, they said if if they couldn’t be free and if they couldn’t secure their own freedom, then they could. Make a claim for anybody else to be free. So Carney and I, I make a I really make a point of this in that opening chapter based on the flag. It’s basically encompassing all of those things. And it conjures up all of those ideas that they had about being free. So then he is somebody who was very selfless. He was a, um, he was somebody who, uh, he was a he was an eloquent orator. I mean, he could talk about what these ideas meant for him. And he was also somebody who could convey that to the people who served next to him. He was a phenomenal figure. But if you remember, he does not basically be recognized and the first recipient until years later. And I think that tells us something about where the country was going at that time.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:16:07] For decades, you talk about you. We talked about for decades.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:16:10] That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Um, and, you know, actually, I had a conversation with somebody here today and and we were talking about, okay, so we have these 89 individuals who are recognized for the acts of gallantry. We’re are the modern day heroes. And I said, you know what? This is a part of a historical trend that we’re living through. Um, and I think this happens when it comes down to thinking about what, um, what the meaning of, uh, of courage is and what gallantry means. I think the country constantly has to basically revisit that every time a person puts their lives on the line for something larger than themselves.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:16:49] I found it fascinating that these individuals went into war and they were not treated the same way as their white counterparts.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:17:00] They were not. They were actually fighting a war within a war.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:17:03] Exactly.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:17:04] They found that not only did they basically had to perform admirably in the face of, uh, in the face of fierce fighting, but they also had to fight those who basically saw them as being less than human beings who supposedly were supposed to be fighting alongside of them and is due to that two front war that they were fighting those battles, that they came back and they were able to come back. They came back with, I think, a in a large view, uh, of what basically democracy meant, what freedom and equality meant, and also access to opportunity.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:17:38] Meant and talked to us about Christian Fleetwood.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:17:41] Fleetwood, one of the one one of them, one of the most interesting individuals that I encountered in my research. He. Was somebody who, um, gave of himself very, uh, gave himself selflessly, uh, based on the field of battle. He wanted to be, um, he wanted to be, uh, you know, he wanted to be an officer. Um, he saw himself as a leader of men and. Time and time again when the country basically found itself, um, moving towards a, an emergency in which basically arms would be taken up, he would put himself forward as being somebody to volunteer for that fight, only to be discouraged. But at the end of the day, he found himself as basically being the cad ray for officers standing who would stand later on. And basically in the World War One Army, they would be the ones who would basically carry the flag forward for people, people like him. He’s one of the he’s one of the most fascinating people. But he’s also, I think, in that pantheon of heroes that I talk about at the end of the book, um, he, um, he served as a vivid example of what commitment to duty and uh, and also commitment to freedom means, I think.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:19:07] Talk to us about the National Convention of Colored Men.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:19:11] The National Convention of Colored Men. That is, if you think about when these men that that that. This organization came into being. It was during a time when, um, Black collectively were trying to, um, they, they were trying to establish themselves not only as basically as men, but also as leaders within their own community. This for them, I think, wow, it is so much about them, um, that we, that we, we really don’t know. Um, we, we need to know the communities from which they emerge. We also need to know, okay, what are the things that basically motivated them to do some of the things that they would do later? I thought I found this period to be one in which, uh, people were saying, You know what, we’re going to be recognized as We’re going to be recognized as respectable, upstanding individuals. And that organization epitomized that.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:20:15] All these stories were, I can say, fascinating, but I got stuck on William. Henry Thompson.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:20:23] Thompson. Somebody Who. Wow. All these people you’re mentioning, it basically brings back a flood of memories for me.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:20:33] I know it did.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:20:34] Um, yeah. Uh, is somebody.
Announcer [00:20:40] Who.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:20:42] Want to describe him. He is. He’s somebody who is very, uh. I would say he’s very he’s very humble, but he’s also a part of this group that comes out of Paterson, New Jersey. Right. Who has their own ideas as to what. They have their own ideas as to what, uh, what freedom means. But at the turn of the century, um, when they were fighting, uh, in the Spanish-American War. They were flying. They were also basically carrying the flag, so to speak. But they were also there realizing that many of the things that they were fighting for were not going to be they were not going to be able to realize them once they returned home, if they returned home. Um, and it is funny about that group is that one of the things about them is that they are right there on the cusp of the Buffalo soldiers who were serving in, you know, in the West at that time. And many of them were basically trained by those former, um, Buffalo soldiers. Um, and I think they, they ended up basically be a deeply influenced by the way that they carried themselves both in uniform and out of uniform. But and I think that, you know, Tompkins epitomizes that.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:21:59] I think I asked this question prior to we have an interview last month. Were there any aha moments that. Occurred while you were researching and then, you know, you know, putting your thoughts on paper.
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:22:15] Well, for me, the thing that struck me the most was that, um, for the World War One guys, the Henry Johnsons. Mhm. Um, I was really surprised that they were not acknowledged, um, at the time and forgotten that he was not acknowledged, just basically being a, a medal of Honor recipient because of what he did. Now if you remember, that story just acts in the face of battle. Mhm. The legendary in fact um, his community and communities along the eastern seaboard would basically sing praises of what he did. Right. But it never reached basically the halls, It never reached the ears of policymakers until much later on and in fact, into the 21st century, where we actually see him being accorded the recognition that he deserved. So that was for me, that was like that was the moment for me, because I was like, you know, I heard stories about, you know, Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson. I heard them from grade school. Um, but just what happened to, you know, after the war and then also how that is, you know, the left, I think the legendary, um, uh, whispers of what he did, um, carried forward and how the process to which he was basically, uh, recognized. I thought that he, um, I thought he should have been recognized way before then. And in fact, I was kind of surprised that he wasn’t recognized before then. Then the other thing is, here’s one more thing, um, for Vernon Baker. Baker is somebody, um. Gosh, I read his memoir before I actually started doing research on what he did during the Second World War. And this is a this is a man. Who was very humble. He was. He’s very down to earth. He talked about his upbringing in a very frank and I think candid way. But what he did, um, basically in Italy. To me. It told me what everyday people could do when they’re basically faced with these moments of adversity. They will rise to the occasion. And Baker, I think, epitomize that. But, you know, at the end of it and what really struck me about him was that even when he was recognized by President Clinton, he still was thinking about his comrades who basically perished on that during the time he was fighting, he still remembered them. Um, and I think that basically resonates with all of them is that they they felt like they would not be who they were if. Yes. It’s not for those people that served alongside it, though. Right.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:25:12] Right. Why was it important for you? You you wrote the narratives of their stories in the beginning of the book. At the back of the book, you have a synopsis of all the 89 recipient. Why was that important to include that also?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:25:28] Well, the reason why I wanted to do that is because I only talked about, um, those who, um. I only talk about those whom I think whose actions basically fit the framework of which in which I was writing. But I also wanted to make sure that, listen, we don’t we don’t forget all 89 of these individuals, because what they did was, was, uh, remarkable in itself. It was phenomenal. Um, I also wanted to make sure that I kept them together as a composite group. Um, if we, if we acknowledge, if we acknowledge some and, and fail to acknowledge the others, then we’re committing the same. We basically, I think we committing the same mistake that they had done previously that the military had done previously in, um, acknowledging their actions.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:26:22] Dr. Jefferson, what do you want readers to come away with?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:26:25] Well, from this book, after reading it, I want them to understand that individuals are motivated by much more than basically, um, I guess, notions of visibility, uh, publicity and so forth. But what moves the most? I think what moves them mostly is the strength of character. And also the courage of conviction. Um, if we acknowledge that and we acknowledge that by reading their stories that we, I think we acknowledge the best parts of ourselves.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:26:58] Well understand. Any final comment, Dr. Jefferson?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:27:01] And any comments?
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:03] Any final comments?
Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr. [00:27:04] Yeah, absolutely. Um, I want to thank you for having me on on your program today. And I want everyone, uh, if you get a chance to read this, too, you take a step back and to reflect on what it means basically to be, um, but basically to be and to be, uh, in the society that we are in right now. And then also what’s going to be required for us basically going forward in the future. That’s what I want to impart to everyone who’s listening to this program.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:36] Dr. Robert Jefferson Jr., Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico and author of Brothers in Valor Battlefield Stories of the 89 African-Americans awarded the Medal of Honor. If you have questions, comments or suggestions as to the future In Black America programs, email us at In Black America at KUT dot org. Also, let us know what radio station you heard us over. Remember to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. The views and opinions expressed on this program are not necessarily those of the station or of the University of Texas at Austin. You can hear previous programs online at kut.org. Until we have the opportunity again for technical producer David Alvarez. I’m John L. Hanson Jr. Thank you for joining us today. Please join us again next week.
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