Former All-Black Md. National Guard Unit Enjoys the Respect It Was Once Denied

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

The armory is named for one of their commanding officers, with a bronze plaque recently mounted. Last month, in a ceremony attended by Maryland's adjutant general, the drill floor was dedicated to one of their enlisted men. And when the remaining members of the 231st Transportation Truck Battalion shuffle through the building wearing their Korean War-era hats, the young soldiers who work there almost always call them "Sir."

It is a radical departure from how the members of the 231st used to be treated. A former all-black unit in the Maryland National Guard, its soldiers were once given hand-me-down equipment and assignments deemed too menial for their white counterparts. It was the mid-1950s. Jim Crow, and its-back-of-the-bus mentality, were alive and well.

Now in their 80s and 90s, the men of the 231st still hold reunions at the armory in Baltimore, which houses a part-museum, part-shrine dedicated to the African Americans who served in the guard and fought for equal rights.

There, they talk about their service in the Korean War, their families and friends, how much things have changed in their lifetimes. They remember the indignity of the racism that once permeated the ranks all the way up to the state's adjutant general, who refused to integrate the Maryland National Guard even after President Harry S. Truman ordered an end to segregation in federal forces in 1948.

There are the dog-eared newspaper articles with headlines including "Vets Say State Guard Fights Integration" and photographs of the unit, dating back decades, that reveal a proud history of African American service.

But by the mid-1950s, several of the unit's officers had had enough with the second-class treatment that had defined their military careers, and after coming home from Korea, they refused to serve in a segregated force. In Korea, they had fought for their country alongside white soldiers. But Maryland was slow to adapt. And so rather than accept separate status, they quit the guard in protest and worked with civil rights groups to lobby the governor and the adjutant general.

"They simply refused to go back into the guard and face that kind of treatment," said Louis S. Diggs, who served in a company under the 231st and wrote about the unit in the book "Forgotten Road Warriors."

"It was purely racist," said Baltimore resident S. Anthony Porter, 90.

He and the other officers of the 231st had faced a lifetime's worth of racism, both in the ranks and in civilian society. Some lower-ranking enlisted white soldiers refused to salute them, he said. On trains, they were forced to sit near the burning coal, so that their uniforms would become covered in soot, and eat in a section of the dining car curtained off from everyone else. When they marched before the generals on the reviewing stand, the band would sometimes stop the marching music and play "Dixie" instead.

"I was reared in a segregated environment," Diggs said. "It was the only life I knew. In the military, I didn't expect anything different."

But in Korea, the units were integrated. And at home, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. So when the adjutant general refused to integrate the Maryland Guard, the officers protested. For Porter, it was not an easy decision. He was worried how his supervisors at the U.S. Postal Service would react to having one of their employees in the center of a controversial civil rights protest that was beginning to attract media attention.

"They could have made my life very uncomfortable," he recalled. But they didn't.

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