Korea holds a bit of Black History
In February each year, we hear about men who changed the old “whites-only America” to the “all-color America” we live in today.
Black History Month began in 1926 when a black historian named Carter G. Woodson designated the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” He chose that week because it marked the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, a former slave who marched on the front line of the abolition of slavery. Half a century later, in the bicentennial year of 1976, the observance was expanded to Black History Month. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is probably one of the most powerful black leaders who awakened the conscience of America in racial issues, but long before him, growing up in Korea, I became acquainted with Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Might Korea’s long slavery to Imperial Japan from 1905 to 1945 have helped me understand Uncle Tom’s sorrow-filled life? It’s possible.
Shortly afterwards, the North Korean Communists invaded South Korea with Russian tanks, and we actually saw many black soldiers along with white soldiers who came to defend us. Korea had been so isolated from the rest of the world for so long that people treated all foreigners with suspicion and distrust, but their attitude toward black soldiers was worse. When a native woman was raped by a white soldier, the media ignored it because we were on the receiving end of America’s generosity. But when the rapist was a black soldier, it was a big deal; we read and heard about the news. More black infants born to the native women showed up in orphanages than white ones.
In late July 1950, a U.S. battalion combat team, including the 24th Infantry Regiment, which was made up entirely of black soldiers, recaptured the enemy-occupied town of Yechon and made big news both in Korea and in the States. It was one of the most successful offensive operations, and it allowed the U.N. Forces time to build a strong defense line called Pusan Perimeter along Nakdong River. A year later, in October 1951, the 24th Infantry Regiment was disbanded, ending long segregation in the U.S. military. Over the following two years, until the truce of 1953, hundreds of black soldiers held command positions in the infantry as well as in air units. This historic event happened in Korea.
Now, without a physical wall between white and black soldiers, mistrust settled in. White officers spread rumors that blacks would abandon any injured white officer on the battleground in cold blood, therefore shouldn’t be trusted. A black chaplain was accused of dampening black soldiers’ combat spirit by asking why men of color were forced to fight for white America. A black officer of a white unit was reassigned before combat because his subordinates didn’t respect him.
Still, many black officers proved their bravery through their exemplary conduct. Nearly 10 percent of the 54,000 fallen Americans were believed to be African Americans, though casualty records did not differentiate men’s race.
In spite of the fact that African-American soldiers did not receive the public recognition they deserved from their countrymen, we South Koreans are thankful to all Americans who delivered us freedom from the Communists. Since 1975, the South Korean government has been inviting their old heroes — of any race — to revisit the new Korea as guests of honor, paying all expenses, including the costs of lodging, meals, bus tours and entertainment, except half of their airfare. Since 2010, the program got even better. Now veterans’ spouses and companions get a 30 percent discount on their airfare, in addition to free stay.
Those who have participated in The Korean War Veterans Revisit program have expressed their awe at the new Korea and the warm hospitality they received. One veteran said to me, “We were treated like kings. Wherever we went, we were lavished with feasts and were showered with thanks. It was touching.”
I foresee that a few years down the road, we will see a segment of the Korean War on TV during Black History Month.