Retired Chaplain (Col.) Clarke L. McGriff, the first African-American Commandant at the Army Chaplain Center and School from 2006 to 2008 stands with Chaplain (Col.) James Palmer, Jr., the current and 44th commandant and retired Chaplain (Col.) Sam Boone, commandant from 2008-2009. (Photo by Mel Slater) 

Religious Institute reflects on the Chaplain Corps during Black History Month

By Mel Slater, Institute for Religious Leadership

February is Black History Month, and the Institute for Religious Leadership and Army Chaplain Corps have many stories to share.

As we observe Black History Month, we also recognize and celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of African Americans who live the call fiercely as chaplains and religious affairs specialists - servant leaders.

The Chaplain Corps has a rich history that dates to 1775, before the establishment of the nation.

The Army Chaplain Corps has been a part of a long tradition since the time the leader of the Continental Army, Gen. George Washington petitioned the Continental Congress to assign chaplains to the ranks. The Chaplain Corps was established July 29, 1775.

African Americans are part of that legacy.

“Black History Month is a time to reflect on those who have come before. There have been many accomplishments and contributions from African Americans to the Chaplain Corps and (IRL),” said Chaplain (Col.) James Palmer, Jr., IRL commandant, “They have made a tremendous impact while creating a path for many others to follow.”

Reverand Henry McNeal Turner was the first African American commissioned as a chaplain in the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War. A native son, Turner was born a “free black” in Newberry, South Carolina in 1834. In 1863, he was appointed as a chaplain in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.

Chaplain William T. Anderson was the first African American officer to command an American military post at Fort Assinniboine, Montana in 1898. His command lasted through May and June. He was then sent to rejoin his regiment where he was also the only African American Army chaplain to serve in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

African Americans were a part of the surge in the Chaplain Corps around 1918. The Army Chaplain School trained 57 African Americans during that time. While the school was integrated, the chaplains would serve in segregated units that included the 92nd Infantry Division, Buffalo Soldiers.

In the modern era, African Americans continued to forge a path in the Army chaplaincy.

Reverend Alice M. Henderson, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was commissioned the first woman to officially serve in the Army Chaplain Corps in July 1974. She was sworn in at a ceremony at U.S. Army Forces Command headquarters at Fort McPherson, Georgia and served for 13 years. She was elected as one of the Top Ten Outstanding Young Women of America in 1976.

In 1990, Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Matthew Augustus Zimmerman Jr., became the 18th Chief of Chaplains of the U.S. Army and the first African American elevated to the position which he held until 1994. A Palmetto State native, Zimmerman was originally from Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Zimmerman was not to be the only African American to serve as Army Chief of Chaplains.

Chap (Maj. Gen.) David Hicks, Chief of Chaplains from 2003 to 2007 was also African American.

In 1993, Col. Abdul-Rasheed Muhamad was named the first commissioned Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces. Muhamad’s commissioning marked the end of 10 years of negotiations among military leaders and representatives of the American Islamic community.

Col. Khallid Shabazz was the first commissioned Muslim Chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces to attain the rank of Colonel on Oct. 4, 2018.

Chaplain (Col.) Clarke L. McGriff was installed as the first African American commandant at the Army Chaplain Center and School from 2006 to 2008. And in 2021, Chap. (Col.) James Palmer, Jr. became the 44th commandant.

The religious affairs specialist has also contributed to the rich heritage of African Americans in the Army Chaplain Corps.

Command Sgt. Maj. Bridgette Smith served as the first female African American then-Army Chaplain Center and School senior enlisted leader from 2005 to 2009.

Sgt. Maj. Monica Butler was the first African American female religious affairs specialist to become master-rated jumpmaster.

Smith and Butler continue to contribute to the IRL as Department of the Army civilians.

“The contributions of African American to the Chaplain Corps has been more than just diversity in presence, they provided leadership at all levels within the Corps,” said Chaplain Corps Military Historian, Dan Fitzpatrick. “Also, their role in providing awareness and insights of the issues that all minorities are faced within the military and society.”

For more information about African Americans in the Chaplain Corps, visit the Army Chaplain Corps Museum on the IRL campus at Fort Jackson.