A soldier from the 82nd Airborne Support Battalion salutes during the playing of Taps on Veterans Day at the national World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A soldier from the 82nd Airborne Support Battalion salutes during the playing of Taps on Veterans Day at the national World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Joe Gromelski / S&S)

Cole B. Whaley Jr. stood outside a movie theater in El Paso, Texas, with two friends from officer candidate school. Together, they made up the sum of black students in their 1957 class.

Whaley was the first to reach the ticket window. Then he saw the sign: "No coloreds allowed."

"They made it known we weren’t getting in," he said. "We were 2nd lieutenants getting ready to go into the Army, and we were turned away because we were black."

A little more than 50 years later, the retired lieutenant colonel will watch, along with the nation, as Barack Obama is sworn in as the first black president and commander-in-chief.

"It is something overpowering," he said.

Black servicemembers have died in every American war, dating back to the Revolution. Racism, however, plagued nearly two centuries of their service, and it is only within the past 40 years that minorities have become commonplace among the military brass. While racism is dissipating, said Gregory Black, a retired Navy commander and founder of the Web site Blackmilitaryworld, "over the last eight years, [there has been] a downward trend of African-Americans coming into the military."

"A lot of young people don’t know the history of the Buffalo Soldiers or the Tuskegee airmen," Black said. "There are things that African-Americans fought and died for over the course of history. If they don’t know the history, they don’t feel a part of it."

Black said a black commander-in-chief could change that, dramatically.

Racism, but not in battle"It’s really very simple," said retired Lt. Col. Michael Lee Lanning, author of "The African-American Soldier."

"From the Revolution to World War II, African-Americans were only used when they were absolutely needed," Lee said. "During times of peace, the military basically ignored them."

During the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington tried to prevent blacks from joining the military, Lanning said. But as infantrymen dwindled, he relented and lifted the ban. Two black battalions from Rhode Island stood at the final surrender of the English. During the Civil War, black sailors manned the gun decks alongside their white counterparts.

"If their skipper wasn’t prejudiced, blacks and whites served and lived together," said Bob Schneller, an official historian with the Navy who has written two books on racial integration among sailors.

After Reconstruction, though, the Jim Crow laws of the American South spread to the Navy and, by World War I, black sailors were relegated to being stewards or cooks. In the other military branches, they didn’t fare much better.

But the battlefield was different. In World War I, the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, or the Harlem Hellfighters, were on the front lines for six months, longer than any other unit. And in World War II, hard fighting by segregated units such as the Tuskegee Airmen and 761st Tank Battalion led to President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order declaring the integration of the military.

Forty years from Jim CrowBlack credits the unique environment of the battlefield with breaking down racial barriers.

"People in the military have to depend on each other. When you have to depend on each other for survival, issues like race become much less important."

Whaley remembered such an instance — a firefight in Vietnam that pinned him and two of his soldiers in a graveyard. To get them out, a helicopter pilot offered to land in the heavy gunfire. Whaley rejected the idea, fearing they would all be killed. But he is still awed that the pilot was willing to sacrifice his life.

"There was no regard for race," he said. "That is the crazy thing. In certain conditions we can be like one, and in others totally divided."

The significance of a black commander-in-chief is not lost on longtime servicemen who are white, either.

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Merrill "Bo" Russell, a white officer raised in the segregated South, did not vote for Obama. But he called Obama’s election "a landmark in U.S. history."

"The ground will be fruitful for working on race relations in America," Russell, 58, said recently at his home in northwest Okinawa, Japan. "There’s still a lot of healing that needs to be done. Just 40 years ago the leader of the civil rights movement was assassinated in Memphis. Just 40 years before the slaying of Martin Luther King, states were still looking the other way while African-Americans were being lynched for no other cause but color. What other country can make such a claim of advancement in so short a time?"

From Powell to Obama"The important thing to note is the time span," Lanning said. "After the Civil War, there was no such thing as equal opportunity in the military. It wasn’t until the last 40 years that things began to change."

Both historians said retired Gen. Colin Powell helped to pave the way for Obama to become the first black commander-in-chief. Now, another first must be crossed off, and it won’t be long when there aren’t many left.

"I didn’t experience the racism," said Rufus Hucks, a Navy communications specialist based in Bahrain. "But it still means a lot to me. Racial tensions were really high 40 years ago. I can’t imagine what it feels like for someone who went through that time period."

Hucks started following Obama’s career after reading "Dreams Of My Father" four years ago as a high school student in Rochester, N.Y., where he was one of a half-dozen black students at a Christian academy.

"It’s an interesting time to be young and into politics, especially when your leaders are talking to you. I really like his call to service," Hucks said.

Black agrees. "In the future, there is going to be a growing number of African -Americans in the military," he said. "The military is the most level playing field in the country for African-Americans."

Hucks, 24, will be huddled among the throngs at the inauguration ceremony.

"I want to be there for the moment," he said.

For Whaley, the inauguration Tuesday is a day he never thought he would see, and a day he doesn’t want his twin 7-year-old daughters to forget. He has gathered two packets for them full of articles telling the story of Obama’s rise to the White House.

"I wanted them to have something personal," he said. "With them living [in Germany], I’ve tried to let them know how he is different, but they don’t have the historical background."

He doesn’t need the packets. He just needs to tell them what happened at the movie theater.

Stars and Stripes reporter David Allen contributed to this report.

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