Bennie McRae: Recapturing essential black history

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By Earnest McBride
JA Contributing Editor

Kentucky isn’t the first thing that comes to Bennie McRae’s mind when his hometown of Louisville is mentioned. You see, Bennie McRae, Jr., the nationally renowned master researcher and Civil War guru, was born in Louisville, Alabama, and not in the big-horse town almost 550 miles due north of his birthplace.

He and his wife of 58 years, Virgilene McRae, live in Trotwood, Ohio today. They first moved to Cincinnati in 1957 for one year, then to Dayton, and on to Trotwood in 1979. They’ve been there ever since.

Born in 1932, McRae joined the Air Force in 1951 and was assigned to air traffic control. After serving four years that covered the hottest two years of the Korean War, he termed out in July 1955, just in time for the tensest years of the Cold War. He then became a career air controller with the Federal Aviation Administration, his 30-plus years there being coterminous with the lingering Cold War that finally ended with the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, McRae’s year of retirement.

As a member of the Armed Forces, McRae retained a burning interest in gaining a more complete knowledge of the many military adventures and exploits of Black servicemen he had heard about during his early life. He knew the names of such legends as Crispus Attucks, Buffalo Soldiers, The Seminole Negro Scouts, The Harlem Hellfighters of World War I, General Patton’s Red Ball Express of World War II, and the group of ace pilots who had trained in his native state and were known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

After 37 years in air traffic administration with the FAA and four years in Air Force and armed with an M.A. in Business Management from Central Michigan University and a B.A. in Business Management from Antioch College, he began in earnest his quest to find the flesh to put on the skeleton of Black military history that had eluded him for so long.

The turning point, he says, came with a visit to the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kansas, and a talk with the female docent there.

“She told me that the usual depiction of the West in textbooks was not true and that the historians and producers of Hollywood movies had really screwed up the history of this country,” he said. “I told her I was very disappointed to hear this because I had just recently retired and wanted to learn about the history of my family and my people.

“Her response was that if I wanted to find out anything about the history of my people that I would have to do it myself. I’d have to research it, write it, and produce it myself because you’re not going to find it in those history books or documentaries.

“A few weeks later, I wound up in the National Archives where I found a treasure trove related to military history, which I had an interest in in the first place. And there was this great number of documents on the Civil War, some fascinating stuff, something I never thought I would see.”

LEST WE FORGET
Following on this discovery in the National Archives of little-known accounts of Black men in the Civil War, McRae began to write a quarterly newsletter and, with the encouragement of a lot of people, began publishing a lot of this material.

“They encouraged me to continue the newsletter,” he said, “but they never offered any financial support. I continued to write articles and other news of interest in this newsletter.

“Then in the 1990’s, when the Internet came along, I saw that there was hardly anything out there about Black history or the Black contributions to military engagements of the nation. So, around 1994 or 1995, I started a Website I called ‘Lest We Forget.’”

No stranger to computers after working 36 years with the most sophisticated tech equipment made available to the FAA in its day-to-day operations, McRae used the “Hot-Dog” program to get started with. He then learned Microsoft’s “Front Page,” which made his task of formatting the work he was tirelessly uploading to Lest We Forget a lot easier.

ARTICLE ON MILLIKEN’S BEND
It was an article in the Jackson Advocate in the summer of 1996 that opened up a new vista for McRae.

“Along about that time,” he said, “someone sent me the article on The Battle of Milliken’s Bend that had just been published in the Jackson Advocate. I had heard about Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana. But this was the first time that I learned about what the Black soldiers had done in the battle there. I was fascinated with the article, and I got permission to post the article on my website.

“I published that article in 1996, but a few weeks later I was asked to take it down,” McRae said. “It was the white historian at the Vicksburg National Military Park who said the article wasn’t accurate and that Benjamin Quarles, the Black historian who was the most quoted author in the article, was not a well-respected historian. I knew the man was lying. And I told him I wasn’t going to take the article off the Lest We Forget Website. It has remained on the Internet up to today and I hope it will remain there through the distant future.”

Shortly after running the Milliken’s Bend article, McRae adopted several columnists and feature writers from the Advocate for regular inclusion on the Lest We Forget Website. The late Jim Rundles’ accounts of his service with the Montford Point Marines in his “Up and Down Farish Street” column, the late Barbara Harris’ column “Black History Every Month,” and Earnest McBride’s “Notes from Black History” were frequently either reprinted on the website or were assigned their own pages, as was the case with Harris and McBride.

AMERICAN WEST AND BEYOND
McRae said that his initial plan was to publish articles about Black men and women in every war dating back to the Revolutionary War up to Desert Storm and the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Realizing that he didn’t have enough resources to gather and publish the great abundance of records he was uncovering, he decided to limit his range of study.

“I began to focus on the Civil War, World War I, and World War II and also the western frontier,” he said. “That’s what I concentrated on and that’s what I built my websites around. Of course, there was the Underground Railroad and a lot of topics that I tried to cover. Eventually, I called it the Lest We Forget Family of Websites.

McRae was intrigued by the African/Native American military history, and especially so with the exploits of the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts and the role that Tuskegee Institute played in supplying the Army/Air Force volunteers known as the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. McRae later served as consultant and developer of historical programs honoring the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts for Annual Seminole Days celebrations in Brackettville/Fort Clark, Texas.

“I had read in Smithsonian Magazine about the Negro Seminole Scouts that served in the United States Army during the Civil War and after,” he said. “I visited Brackettville the first time in 1994 and met some wonderful people there. I started going back to their annual Seminole Day in the third week of September. That’s when they celebrated their ancestors and their history. I met a lot of people there from all over the United States who were either Seminole descendants or people who had an interest in preserving the tribal memory and the way they had survived against the overwhelming odds against them created by the federal government.

“I fell in love with this place, and I fell in love with the people,” he said. “This was one of the high points during my little career in research about Black people and the Native Americans in the west.”

SPEECH AT WASHINGTON COURTHOUSE
McRae’s commitment to supporting educational programs about the history of the U.S. Colored Troops has had a wide-ranging effect. In collaboration with Paul LaRue, a high school history instructor in Washington Courthouse, Ohio, McRae encouraged and supported LaRue’s students’ restoration of the U.S. Colored Troops’ cemetery plot at the Washington Cemetery and the student database of burial places of Ohio’s U.S. Colored Civil War soldiers. McRae is greatly honored when he recalls the Washington High School’s website maintained by those same students and their successors.

McRae was the guest speaker at the restoration of the graveyard and summarized the history of how and when Ohio’s Black regiments were mustered into service.

“On May 22, 1863,” he said at the 2007 gathering, “Assistant Adjutant General E. D. Townsend, by order of the United States Secretary of War, issued General Order No. 143, that authorized the formation of the Bureau of United States Colored Troops (USCT). This order officially began the recognition of the Black soldier in the U. S. Army. Men became part of the U. S. Colored Troops in three ways: redesignation of state volunteer regiments, redesignation of the Native Guards and Corps d’Afrique, organized in Louisiana and via the draft, enlistments, or as substitutes.”

HAMPTON UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
At some point between 2012 and 2015, McRae decided that he should phase out his online operations, save for his personal Facebook page and other social media. In order to safeguard the massive body of work that he had put together for more than 20 years, he chose Hampton Institute Archives as the repository for the many documents and notes. The material, while archived and not subject to revision or editing, would be made available through the Institute’s online services.

“Bennie McRae, Jr. has donated more than 20 years of research on the African American military experience, primarily focused on the U.S. Colored Troops and Contrabands in the Civil War,” Hampton’s archivist announced. “McRae’s research is compiled from numerous libraries, archives, and historic sites, much of which he features on three popular historical websites: www.lwfaah.net, www.lwfaam.net and www.bjmjr.net. He formerly managed several research forums for Afrigeneas.com, and in 2007, he co-authored the book ‘Nineteenth Century Freedom Fighters’ along with the late Curtis M. Miller and his wife, Cheryl Trowbridge-Miller.”

McRae also served as a military consultant on a 2005 documentary produced by Australian television based on the African American military experience under the title of “Black Soldier Blues.”

All these materials are scheduled to be posted on the Hampton University website as the ultimate goal. McRae said that he hopes that his associates and new students in this field of research will make use of the Hampton archives.

“It is a blessing to partner with an institution such as Hampton University that can further spread the information,” said McRae. “I know that it’ll be in good hands and be here forever for people to access.”

Although officially retired from his original research project, McRae continues to feed the social media with news of interest and hard-to-find documents about the Black men and women who have served the country via its armed forces.

“My experience in the military was certainly an important inspiration and foundation in researching the history of the Black military,” McRae says. “It is the story of a people who in spite of injustice, continue to be the most patriotic of Americans.”