UPDATED: 9:15 a.m. EST, Nov. 11, 2021 —
Wednesday marked the annual observation of the Veterans Day holiday to celebrate and honor America’s men and women who served the country in the military. Originating in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson, Veterans Day honors those selfless Americans who sacrificed their lives to defend and fight for the country.
That esteemed group includes a number of celebrities and famous Black folks who also served in the U.S. military.
However, there isn’t always a nuanced image of veterans and we must as a nation remember that they have come — and are still coming — in all colors and backgrounds.
There are plenty of familiar Black people who took time out of their lives to serve in the United States armed forces.
Black people broke the United States’ military color barrier in the 1700s when Crispus Attucks became the first person to die in the Revolutionary War during what would come to be known as the Boston Massacre. Following that, thousands of Black soldiers who were slaves as well as free men fought in the Continental Army and state militias during America’s war for independence from Great Britain.
That trend of Black people serving in the United States’ military has only flourished over the past centuries, with many emerging as war heroes. Some of them have gone on to become famous for other things, from serving in presidential administrations to becoming global pop stars to making iconic films, and more.
Scroll down to our photo gallery of some African American former servicemen and women you knew about, and maybe a few you didn’t.
Happy Veterans Day! 15 Famous Black Folks Who Served In The Military
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1. Montel Williams
Well before becoming known for having his own talk show, Williams enlisted in the U.S. Marines after graduating high school in 1974. He took basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, where he was promoted to platoon guide. After basic training, he was sent to the Desert Warfare Training Center at Twenty-nine Palms, near Palm Springs, California. Following that he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy and enlisted in the navy, where he ultimately left with the rank of lieutenant and received the Navy Achievement Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Navy Commendation Medal.
2. Charlie Rangel
Before representing Harlem for decades in Congress, Rangle earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, where he led a group of soldiers out of a deadly Chinese army encirclement during the Battle of Kunu-ri in 1950.
Before becoming a successful comedian and actor, Sinbad served in the United States Air Force as a boom operator aboard KC-135 Stratotankers.
4. MC Hammer
Before selling millions of records as a global rap star, MC Hammer served as a Third Class Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy.
Before becoming a mega pop star, Shaggy served in the United States Marine Corps as a Field Artillery Cannon Crewman and also served with a Field Artillery Battery in the 10th Marine Regiment during the Persian Gulf War.
6. Mr. T
Before becoming an iconic actor in the 1980s, the mohawked Mr. T served as a military policeman in the Army.
7. Morgan Freeman
Freeman was an Airman 1st Class in the Air Force before becoming an Oscar Award-winning actor.
8. Harry Belafonte
The singer and activist served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
9. James Earl Jones
Jones enrolled in ROTC at the University of Michigan before joining the Army during the Korean War, going on to become a second lieutenant before being honorably discharged.
10. Colin Powell
Before becoming Secretary of State, Powell had a literal lifetime of military service from college in the 1950s until his retirement in the 1990s.
Before conquering the worlds of hip-hop and Hollywood, Ice-T joined the Army in 1979 and spent four years as a soldier.
12. Sheryl Underwood
13. Marvin Gaye