As of last year, Juneteenth is now recognized as a federal holiday in the United States though it dates back to 1865. On June 19, 1865, federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of slavery, securing the freedoms of 250,000 Black slaves. The Army ensured enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, advancing fundamental issues of justice, morality and humanity.
Black Soldiers have defended our nation since the Revolutionary War even when their freedom and dignity were so long denied. Maj. Gen. Vance Coleman, former commanding general of 84th Division (now the 84th Training Command) from 1985 up until his retirement in 1989, lived an extraordinary life of service in the U.S. Army.
Coleman enlisted in the Army in 1947, when the Army was still segregated, and served in all-Black units until he was selected to attend Officer Candidate School in 1951. Upon completion he was initially placed in a combat arms unit but was then reassigned to another all-Black unit.
It wasn’t until he volunteered to serve in the Korean War that he was then assigned to an integrated unit, the 623rd Field Artillery Battalion in 1952. There he served as a forward observer, an assistant executive officer and a commander. After about 10 months, he was wounded by shrapnel and evacuated to Japan.
From Japan, he assumed command of a battery as a captain, then served as an assistant operations officer of a battalion. He was then assigned to a unit in Hawaii before being released from active duty.
Coleman used his GI Bill to complete his bachelor’s and master's degrees.
Coleman returned to Milwaukee and joined the 84th Division in 1964. He served in numerous key positions over his 21 years in the division, eventually leading to the rank of major general and serving as the commanding general until he retired in 1989.
Coleman served for over 30 years, experiencing many significant changes in the Army including the end of racial segregation in the ranks, women becoming recognized as equals and the move to an all-volunteer military.
He served during major milestones of military transformation, when President Truman eliminated segregation in the armed forces, placing qualification ahead of discrimination. That was also a time when legislation passed allowing women into the military, even though women had already served in both world wars, and some served during the Civil War.
Even after retirement, Coleman continuously expressed the priority for readiness of the U.S. armed forces and personnel policies that best serve that readiness. He also understood that American culture would change and with that, the military needed to adapt in order to attract and retain new recruits. This then led him to advocate on behalf of lesbian and gay troops in an effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
He used his firsthand experience with discrimination to provide compelling arguments when he testified in 2008 to the house committee about the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited openly gay and lesbian service members. He was a member of a panel that proposed ending the policy, comparing it to decisions to integrate Black people and allowing women to serve in expanded capacities. He used his personal knowledge to address the relationship between personal conduct and unit cohesion which were topics and arguments previously made when deciding to integrate Black people and women into the military.
He continued his advocacy to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” including writing a letter to President Obama to gain his support. He also participated in a forum at the Harry S. Truman Library in which he discussed the argument that desegregation would impair efficiency and unit cohesion and why Truman chose to issue an executive order desegregating the military.
His advocacy led to LGBTQ Soldiers and Civilians being able to serve openly, with pride and honor with the repeal eventually enacted in December 2010, with the effective date of Sept. 20, 2011.
Coleman died Sept. 1, 2021, of cancer and a Celebration of Life ceremony was recently held June 17 in his honor. The ceremony began with his interment at Private Valhalla Memorial Park, followed by a Celebration of Life at the Wisconsin African American Women’s Center. Maj. Gen. Miguel A. Castellanos, 84th Training Command commanding general, Lt. Col. Kenny Honken, 84th Training Command chaplain and members of the 86th Training Division, 84th Training Command provided full military funeral honors.
Castellanos delivered remarks recognizing Coleman’s service and his great contributions to the Army and our nation.
“It’s because of leaders like him that diversity in the Army is recognized and prioritized by its workforce,” said Castellanos. “Through his service, he contributed something greater than himself and helped build a stronger future for us all.”
Coleman’s sons, Michael and Gary, and his daughter, Michelle were in attendance and accepted the burial flag and historical materials from their father’s time in service.
During Coleman’s Army service, he was notably awarded two awards of the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal and the Parachutist Badge.