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The Color Line in the Army


In the summer of 1906, racial tensions exploded throughout America over the Brownsville Raid. Members of the all-black 25thArmy Regiment stationed at Fort Brown, Texas, were falsely accused of killing one citizen and injuring two police officers in an unprovoked attack. In a miscarriage of justice, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the 167 black infantrymen dishonorably discharged, including six Medal of Honor recipients.

Since the close of the Civil War, African American servicemen remained a lightning rod for racial animosity. They were limited to serving in only one of four specially created cavalry and infantry regiments. The Brownsville incident put fuel to racist fire, sparking calls for the removal of all African Americans from the Army.

Not all bought in to the racial hatred. Captain Matthew Steele was an instructor at the War College in Washington DC and the future commandant of the ROTC at the North Dakota Agricultural College. He challenged such bigotry in a journal article penned for The North American Review published on this date in 1906. Steele argued that “soldiers of the regular army, white and black, have always given a good account of themselves in campaign and battle…and therefore should not be excluded from any troop.”

Steele saw that the segregation of the Army was not based on reason but of the fear smoldering in the hearts of lawmakers still grappling with the outcome of the Civil War; a fear Steele argued was as much “boogey” in the 1860s as in the 1900s. Steele believed that military segregation in the Armed Forces only served to keep African American citizens as a class apart, forcing black soldiers to accept their de facto second-class status. This poisonous policy, Steele asserted, was “contrary to the spirit of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, and to the good sense of the twentieth century.” Therefore, Steele concluded, not only should African Americans be allowed to serve in the US Army, they should be able to serve in fully integrated regiments.

While his words echo in our minds as embodiments of liberty and justice, it took nearly half a century before Captain Matthew Steele witnessed the integration of the US Army shortly before his death in Fargo in 1953.

Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall


Astor, Gerald. The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military (Da Capo Press, 1998)

“Finding Aid to the Matthew Forney Steele Photograph Collection.” Institute for Regional Studies & University Archives, North Dakota State University Libraries.

Steele, Matthew F., “The ‘Color Line’ in the Army.” The North American Review, Vol. 183, No. 605 (Dec. 21, 1906), pp. 1285-1288