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Historical Era

Thinking Skill


Integration of the U.S. Armed Forces

Launch Lesson

National Archives Education Team
Making Connections
Historical Era:
Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
Primary Historical Thinking Skill:
Historical Comprehension
blooms taxonomy
Bloom's Taxonomy:

Use to create an Activity

Integration of the U.S. Armed Forces


Students will draw upon the visual and textual data presented in photographs and documents to gain an understanding of the participation of African Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces and of changes in American military policy regarding racial integration.

This activity provides both specific content (e.g., dates, name of a president) and asks students to draw connections that go beyond observation to analysis and synthesis. For grades 6-8. Approximate time needed is 20-30 minutes.

Author’s Notes

Provide the students with a vocabulary list of key terms. These should include segregation, integration, desegregation, Executive Order, civil rights movement, and infantry.

Present the activity to the class so that students can see all of the documents on screen at once. Explain that, as a class, they will come up with links between them. This approach provides students with the overall historical narrative and will assist them in establishing connections between documents. Also, instruct the students to look at the “Details” section for each document for further information.

Model careful document analysis with the each document in the sequence.

Direct your students to examine the first two photographs including the information available by clicking on the Details button. What similarities and/or differences do they see? When were the photos taken? Answers to these questions should be entered into the first blank text box.

Then ask your students to examine the next two photographs. What similarities and/or differences do they see between these photos and between them and the first two. Answers to these questions should be entered into the second blank text box.

Direct your students to examine the next four items. What changes do they see? Who or what do they think helped to cause this change?

This is one possible arrangement of documents and links to share with students:

1. Photograph of the deck of the integrated crew of the gunboat “Mendota,” ca. 1860-65

2. Photograph of United States Colored Troops at Port Hudson, LA, 1864

3. Link: African-Americans served in the U.S. Army & Navy during the Civil War. Black sailors served in integrated units; Black soldiers did not.

4. Photograph of African-American Infantrymen in France, ca.1917-19

5. Photograph of African-American Soldiers in Coburg, Germany April 1945

6. Photograph of Harry Truman during his service in World War I (World War One/WWI)

7. Link: African-American soldiers also served during World Wars I & II, again in segregated units. Harry S. Truman served in a segregated unit during World War I. He became president and commander-in-chief of the military on April 12, 1945.

8. Letter from A. Philip Randolph to President Truman regarding racial segregation in the Armed Forces, 1947

9. Link: After World War II, African-American leaders such as A. Philip Randolph exerted increasing pressure on President Truman to desegregate the Armed Forces. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces.

10. Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces (1948).

11. Photograph of President George H. W. Bush with troops in Saudi Arabia, 1990.

During the discussion, students will likely identify other possible connections between the documents. Explore each suggested connection to determine if it is supported by the evidence present in the document or photograph. For example, ask, “What specifically do you see in the document (or photograph) that leads you to that conclusion?”

If time permits, ask your students to construct an activity similar to this one but on another civil rights issue (e.g., school desegregation, voting rights).

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum’s website has a large collection of material on this and other topics. Go to the following link:

For more information on the featured documents, follow the links below.

Documents in this activity: