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Written by Kevin L. Bradley, Archives Technician in the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

The National Archives holds thousands of photographs illustrating the various activities of servicemen and women in all branches of the Armed Forces. The photographs are able to give visuals of the bravery and sacrifice that men and women in the military made during their service.

In several of the series, there are images of lesser known military heroes whose stories deserved to be acknowledged. One such person is Frederick C. Branch, the first African American commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps (USMC).

After receiving a draft notice in May 1943, Branch reported to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where he was inducted into the Marines. He was one of the first African Americans selected into the USMC after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which allowed black men to join the corps. Branch’s service and commitment during World War II, earned him at place in the officer’s training program. On November 10, 1945, Branch was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Branch would later achieve the rank of Captain in 1952.

The image below is from the General Photograph File of the U. S. Marine Corps, 1927-1981 (NAID 532396) series. This series was created by the USMC to capture the history of the Corps’ activities from early campaigns during World War II to battles in the Vietnam Conflict. It also contains images of African American Marines in wartime activities. The selected photograph shows Branch’s wife, Camilla, admiring his second lieutenant’s bars in 1945.

“The first Negro to be commissioned in the Marine Corps has his second lieutenant’s bars pinned on by his wife. He is Frederick C. Branch of Charlotte, NC.”, 11/1945 NAID 532577

Over the years, Branch has received numerous awards and honors. In 1995, the Senate passed a resolution to honor his contribution to the integration of the USMC. Additionally, an officer candidate training school in Virginia, and several scholarships were named after him.

The series Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files, 1982-2007 (NAID 6274097), created by the Defense Visual Information Center to collect a visual record of military activities for publicity purposes, contains photographs of servicemen and women at various functions representing the Armed Forces. The photograph below shows Branch and his wife, at the dedication ceremony for Branch Hall at the Officers Candidates School, Marine Corps Combat Development Command in 1997.

Mr. Frederick Clinton Branch cuts the ribbon and officially dedicates Branch Hall at the Officers Candidates School, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. Mr. Branch is now a retired educator living in Philadelphia. Assisting Mr. Branch are his wife; Brig. GEN. E. C. Kelly, Commanding General (left); LT. GEN. P. K. Van Riper, Commanding General Marine Corps Combat Development Command; and COL. A. Davis, Commanding Officer of the Officers Candidate School, 07/09/1997 NAID 6501401

The Chaos of Emancipation

by on December 2, 2014

Written by Linda Barnickel, independent archivist and freelance writer

It’s easy for us today to think that enslaved people during the Civil War era were held in bondage, and then all of a sudden, were not. Whether they ran away or remained on the plantation until Union troops invaded the area, it’s easy to think of emancipation as a single event. Presto, change-o – unfree to free. Perhaps in a single hour or day. Their status had changed.

The reality is much more complicated. The case of northeast Louisiana in the spring and summer of 1863 proves that the emancipation of southern slaves was complex. There were three different issues in play: former enslaved as “contrabands;” freed people as laborers on U.S.-operated plantations; and the recruitment of black men as soldiers into the Union army.


To Colored Men! (NAID 1497351)

To Colored Men! (NAID 1497351)

During the early part of 1863, the Union Army of the Tennessee, under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, gathered along the west bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Their presence had a destabilizing effect on the nearby plantations, which were still mostly populated by their owners and their human chattel. By March of 1863, a number of planters had fled to the center part of the state, near Monroe, Louisiana, or farther west to Shreveport, or even Texas. The planters often forced their enslaved men and women to accompany them, but some bondsmen took the opportunity to run away to the East, toward Union lines. Other planters removed most of their slaves, but left their homes and plantations in charge of a few trusted servants. Sometimes, these were elderly slaves, whom planters thought not only more loyal, but were also less likely to run away due to their age and health. Other times, they may have been house servants, whom the planters thought would be able to maintain their home, perhaps preventing its destruction by Yankee marauders. But the departure of white slaveholders, coupled with the proximity of the Union Army, meant that it was not long before the former bondsmen claimed their own freedom and left the plantations for Union lines. At first in small groups, then by the hundreds, freed people headed east and flooded the Union Army camps. This quickly overwhelmed the army’s ability to provide even basic necessities, such as food and sanitation. In an effort to make the situation more manageable, the army established “contraband camps,” – or what became essentially refugee camps for former enslaved men and women.

The contraband camps in northeastern Louisiana continued to be a problem for Union authorities. First, so many freed people were in these camps that they created a significant drain on Federal resources. Not only did the Union Army have to feed and clothe its own, but now it had thousands of contrabands to provide for as well. And this, just when the army was about to move out of the region, to begin the final campaign to capture the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg, Mississippi. In an attempt to alleviate this situation, many freed people were returned to area plantations – this time, laboring for wages and under the supervision of white plantation operators from the North. These men leased the plantations from the U.S. government. Their task, and that of their black laborers, was to grow crops to provide for the freed people, help feed the army, and grow cotton to send north and sell for a profit.


This circular, issued by Col. Isaac F. Shepard in May 1863, reveals some of the chaos in northeastern Louisiana. Shepard found it necessary to explicitly prohibit “punishment by the lash” on government plantations, and had to sternly remind people that the U.S. government’s entire mission in the area was to “recognize...the rights of personal liberty” and “ensure...kindness and protection” to former slaves. Because many officers were forcing men into the military involuntarily, Shepard also had to provide concrete recruiting procedures, in an effort to maintain peace and order between the Army and plantation operators, and to respect the personal liberty of the former slaves.

This circular, issued by Col. Isaac F. Shepard in May 1863, reveals some of the chaos in northeastern Louisiana. Shepard found it necessary to explicitly prohibit “punishment by the lash” on government plantations, and had to sternly remind people that the U.S. government’s entire mission in the area was to “recognize…the rights of personal liberty” and “ensure…kindness and protection” to former slaves. Because many officers were forcing men into the military involuntarily, Shepard also had to provide concrete recruiting procedures, in an effort to maintain peace and order between the Army and plantation operators, and to respect the personal liberty of the former slaves. (NAID 593342)


Although the contraband camps and plantation leasing system probably affected the majority of freed people in the region of northeast Louisiana, the most important outcome of the Union presence in the spring of 1863, was the enlistment of black men into the Federal Army. In April, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas came from Washington to the Mississippi Valley, seeking experienced white soldiers from Grant’s army to serve as officers in what would become known as the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). These white officers were responsible for doing their own recruiting among African Americans in the region. Anxious to get their increased rank and pay, many of these officers simply went out to the plantations and pressed black men into the service. Many regiments formed at the same time and competed for the same men. Some officers were true abolitionists and felt honored to serve in this capacity. Others were opportunists, seeking rapid promotion with its increased pay and prestige, and cared little for the welfare of the enlisted black men under their command.

The first test for these soldiers came at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana on June 7, 1863. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the barely-trained African American soldiers fought valiantly in hand-to-hand combat, despite being overwhelmed by a Confederate attack. Afterwards, word spread about their impressive behavior under fire. Even the Confederate General, Henry McCulloch, admitted that the black troops fought with “considerably obstinacy.” The men of the African Brigade proved themselves, in the words of one observer, “worthy of the name of soldiers.”[1]


Due to overlapping administrative channels, a variety of resources document the transition from slavery to freedom in the Mississippi Valley during the summer of 1863. Information about contraband camps, Federal plantations, and the organization of African-American regiments can be found in the following sources:

RG 393 Records of US Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920

The related series were created in the 8th Louisiana Regiment Infantry (African Descent) during the American Civil War: Letters Sent, 05/1863–02/1864 (NAID 5488006); General Orders, 05/1863–07/1865 (NAID 5489965); and Special Orders, 05/1863–02/1865 (NAID 5490140).


RG 94 Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s–1917

The Colored Troops Division was established by General Order 143 on May 22, 1863. It administered matters pertaining to recruitment, organization, and service of the US Colored Troops. Related series include Register of Letters Received by Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, 04/1863–04/1865 (NAID 601776); Record of Regiments, 1863–1865 (NAID 602258); Applications for Appointment, 1863–1865 (NAID 602238); and Report Entitled “The Negro in the Military Service of the United States,” 1888 (NAID 602300).


Linda Barnickel’s prize-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013) further details the story of an important, but long-forgotten battle in which former-slaves-turned-soldiers played a prominent role. Click here to learn more about Milliken’s Bend.


[1] War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington, DC: GPO, 1889), series 1, vol. 24, pt. 2, p. 467; Frank Ross McGregor, Dearest Susie: A Civil War Infantryman’s Letters to His Sweetheart, ed. Carl E. Hatch (New York: Exposition Press, [1971]), p. 55.

Mayor for Life

by on November 25, 2014

Written by Netisha Currie and Tina Ligon, National Archives at College Park

“My greatest work comes in the community” ~ Marion Barry

Today is the annual Turkey Giveaway – a local tradition of Southeast Washington, DC in which former mayor Marion Barry would give out turkeys and vegetables to less fortunate residents so that they might have a happy Thanksgiving. In spite of his recent death, the event goes on as scheduled because planners say, “that’s what he would have wanted.”

Marion S. Barry

Marion S. Barry, Jr. was born into a sharecropping family on March 6, 1936 in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Growing up in the South, Barry noticed at an early age the disparities between blacks and whites in education and employment. He fought for equal rights as an Eagle Scout and as a student member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Barry earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from LeMoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee (1958) and then began a master’s program at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. While at Fisk, Barry participated in the student sit-ins that were spreading across the South. In April 1960, Barry, along with John Lewis, Diane Nash, and James Bevel, traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to answer the call for organized student protest. Barry was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was the first national chairman of the student group that would work towards desegregation in the South.

In June 1965, Barry relocated to Washington, DC where he began his political career. Armed with passion and a desire for equality for African Americans, he soon became a favorite of Washingtonians. Barry was first elected to the newly minted city council after Home Rule was established in 1974. He went on to serve four terms as Mayor of Washington, DC in 1978, 1982, 1986, and 1994, and was serving as council member for Ward 8 when he passed away. He dealt with several issues that included city administration, public housing, violent crime, unemployment, and DC statehood.

Marion S. Barry

There are a number of records in the holdings of the National Archives that document Marion Barry’s personal life and public career. The records relating to Barry’s famous drug bust, investigation, and trial are permanent government record, as well as records relating to public programs and works he implemented as mayor. In his first term as mayor, Marion Barry instituted the Summer Youth Employment Program. Aimed at providing opportunity for under-served low-income young people of the District, the program continues today (entirely on District funding) and is credited as one of the factors in expanding the Black middle class of the Washington, DC area. On July 20, 1983, at the occasion of $800,000 of additional federal funds being allocated to DC, President Ronald Reagan spoke in the Rose Garden before presenting Mayor Barry with a check:

When Secretary Ray Donovan learned that my adopted hometown here was running out of money for its summer jobs program, he called Mayor and offered to help. The result is today’s check drawn from available funds at the Department of Labor. These funds will be added to the $8.2 million already transferred to the city and should provide 2,200 more summer jobs for unemployed young people in our Nation’s Capital, a city that is very special to all of us as Americans.

This money is part of over $800 million that is being distributed nationally to enable State and local governments, and this will provide an estimated 800,000 summer jobs for young people throughout the United States. Our goal is to offer disadvantaged young people valuable work experience and at the same time provide the community with their services, which, I might add, will be more than welcome by cities and nonprofit agencies which will be receiving their help.

-“Remarks on Providing Additional Federal Funds for the Washington, DC Summer Youth Employment Program July 20, 1983.” Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Another item of note is the motion picture from the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Police Program. This series of film documents the early years of an experiment on police-community relations. In the film CG 8225: The People and the Police, 1971 (NAID 73174) Marion Barry is shown as one of the community representatives charged with deciding on where a pilot precinct should be established, and ways to improve relations with the police force. Marion Barry, in his ‘activist phase’, brings up the issue of community distrust in the police force, and urges that citizens should be in control of the precinct. The film clearly displays Barry’s charisma, passion for the people he represented, and leadership that he would carry throughout his storied career in public office. Click here for the full film in YouTube.

Mural in Petworth, Washington, DC


Written by

Barbara Lewis Burger, a retired National Archives Still Picture Senior Archivist

 We hea’ a callin’ from Colon

We hea’ a callin’ from Limon

Let’s quit de t’ankless toil an’ fret

Fe where the better pay we’ll get

~Claude McKay, Peasants’ Way O’ Thinkin’

According to La Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (Panama Canal Authority) almost 57,000 workers were employed during the construction of the Panama Canal. Of that figure, the overwhelming number was people of African descent. Some of the employees were black Americans from the United States (see “The Panama Canal: The African American Experience” by Patrice C. Brown in Prologue, Summer 1997). The majority of personnel, however, were Afro-Caribbeans from the Antilles islands commonly referred to as the West Indies. The largest number of those workers—roughly 20,000—was from Barbados. Included among those seeking jobs in the Canal Zone were many West Indian women, some of whom followed their husbands, while others journeyed to Panama often for the same reasons as men—jobs and better pay, freedom, or adventure.

In his lengthy 1912 poem, “Peasants’ Way O’ Thinkin’,” Jamaican-American writer and poet Claude McKay suggested some of the reasons islanders left their homes in droves (see William J. Maxwell, ed., Complete Poems/Claude McKay, 2004). The applicants were not unaware of the racism practiced by Canal officials, the physically demanding and dangerous jobs, the deadly diseases, the deplorable living conditions, nor of the high death rates among laborers. Individuals returning home or sending news to relatives and friends certainly relayed information about the situation. Then again, life on the islands for the unskilled and mostly illiterate was little better. Sugar prices had been depressed for many years, and sugar cane cultivation was in decline, frequent floods and droughts and even a 1907 earthquake wrought havoc, and landlessness, overpopulation, and severe unemployment made for a bleak existence. A construction job paying ten cents an hour was for many West Indians double what could be expected from working in sugar cane fields. Understandably, the opportunity to escape the dire conditions on their home islands for a chance at better pay was a strong lure that so many could not ignore.

No matter their motivation, a seemingly endless supply of Antillean workers permeated all aspects of life and work on the isthmus. David McCullough noted in his history The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (Simon and Schuster, 1977) that “There were not only thousands of West Indians down amid the turmoil of Culebra Cut or at the lock sites but black waiters in every hotel, black stevedores, teamsters, porters, hospital orderlies, cooks, laundresses, nursemaids, janitors, delivery boys, coachmen, icemen, garbage men, yardmen, mail clerks, police, plumbers, house painters, gravediggers. A black man walking along spraying oil on still water, a metal tank on his back, was one of the most familiar of all sights in the Canal Zone.” McCullough further remarked that despite the essentialness of their labors, little official or national notice or acknowledgement was paid.

Nevertheless, photographic coverage of their hard work exists in still picture series in the Records of the Panama Canal, Record Group 185 at the National Archives. The photographs featured in this blog document a variety of occupations. The images are from two series: the general still picture series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1887-1940 (NAID 535444) and the series Photographs Related to the Construction of the Panama Canal’s Pacific Terminals, East Breakwater Works, Cristobal Coaling Plant Works, and the Operation of Floating Cranes, ca. 1911-ca. 1916 (NAID 535446).

Written by

Dr. Miranda Booker Perry, Archivist at the National Archives at Washington, D. C.


LBJ and Civil Rights

Although I did not have the opportunity to attend the Civil Rights Summit in April of this year, having the event at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library was most fitting. A key component of the Great Society was Johnson’s efforts to end racial injustice. President Johnson was a masterful legislator, clever tactician, and seasoned politician; the qualities needed to get the Civil Rights bill passed in Congress. In his address to a joint session of Congress, five days after Kennedy’s assassination, he asserted,

First, no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it into the books of law. I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race and color.

President Johnson firmly believed in the adage, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ and he was determined to make the Civil Rights Act a reality even in the face of strong opposition.


Plight of African Americans

Although a century had passed since the Civil War drew to a close and the 13th Amendment was secured, African Americans in the South were living without equal protection under the law and were left to fend for themselves against white supremacy. Civil Rights Bills were enacted in the 1860s and 1870s, but they were not enforced or circumvented by the states. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, but was nullified by the Supreme Court Decision known as The Civil Rights Cases (1883). By the 1960s legalized segregation (Jim Crow laws) was entrenched in the South and blacks were treated as second-class citizens. Public accommodations such as restaurants, lunch counters, hotels, beaches, pools, retail stores, and cemeteries were racially segregated. Black people suffered numerous indignities at the hands of segregationists and were subject to brutal beatings, maiming, or murder if they dared to exercise their constitutional rights.

Significant Civil Rights Events that occurred in 1964

  •  “Mississippi Burning, the federal investigation into the the disappearance of civil rights organizers James Chaney, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in June 1964
  • Lt. Colonel Lemuel Penn, Army Reserve Officer and educator, was shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan members on his way back to Washington D. C. with two other Army Reserve officers after training exercises in Fort Benning, Georgia
  • Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) Initiatives
  • Freedom Summer (also known as the Mississippi Summer Project)
  • Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was established
  • Northern urban unrest/discontent (due to police brutality etc)
  • Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize


President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson meeting with religious leaders to discuss Civil Rights.

President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson meeting with religious leaders to discuss Civil Rights.


Supporting the Civil Rights Bill of 1964

Many photographs and documents pertaining to the Civil Rights Act are in our holdings at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. During April, May and June of 1964 numerous groups came to the White House to demonstrate or show their support of the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, namely, the NAACP, unions, religious groups and other organizations. The organizations are as follows: National Interreligious Convocation on Civil Rights in April 28, 1964 (groups from various major religious faiths joined together to support the passage of the Civil Rights Bill) meeting with the National Director of the NAACP and board of directors, June 24, 1964; and Civil Rights leaders in January 1964.He met with leaders of major Civil Rights organizations on a number of occasions and they are, notably,: Roy Wilkins who was the executive director of the NAACP, Whitney M. Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League, James L. Farmer, founder of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With pressure applied by various organizations, and especially Civil Rights organizations and their supporters, forward thinking members of Congress and a pro-active President the Civil Rights Bill was enacted and its provisions were enforced by the federal government.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (center), with Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Whitney Young, met with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office on January 18, 1964. (LBJ Library)

Martin Luther King, Jr. (center), with Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Whitney Young, met with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office on January 18, 1964. (LBJ Library)


Inner workings of Congress

President Johnson had considerable clout in Congress. His power of persuasion coupled with the “The Johnson Treatment” was especially useful in handling the diehard Southern Bloc in the Senate (18 Democrats and 1 Republican) who was in opposition to the Civil Rights bill. Southern Congressmen and senators used a variety of tactics including the Filibuster that lasted for more than fifty days in attempts to kill the bill. This was anticipated and Senator Hubert H. Humprey (D-MN) and other Senators introduced a substitute bill to end the filibuster and ensure that the act was passed.


The Civil Rights Movement was a grassroots movement. Had it not been for ordinary men and women, unsung heroes, along with Civil Rights leaders, non-violently protesting and demonstrating against racial injustice (and some losing their lives in the process) the acts passed in the 1960s would not have come to fruition. America’s Civil Rights Struggle galvanized Congress to pass and enforce legislation to protect the rights of people of color. It was a tremendous help, of course, that the leader of the free world, LBJ, firmly supported the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the same year, he also signed the Constitutional Amendment on the Poll Tax. The 24th Amendment, ratified on January 23, 1964, finally outlawed the poll tax which was intentionally designed to disenfranchise Southern blacks. On August 20, 1964, LBJ also signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law which is also known as the Poverty Bill. And this was just in 1964. He went on to sign such transformative legislation as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (officially known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968) among others. Why then, when President Johnson’s name is evoked, does the Vietnam War, started under the Eisenhower Administration, prominently figure in many peoples’ minds instead of the devastating blow he dealt to overt racial discrimination?

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., others look on, 07/02/1964. (The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., others look on, 07/02/1964. (The LBJ Presidential Library)



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