African Americans have fought in every military conflict in US history, even as they were denied rights and benefits afforded to their White counterparts. A new monument now recognizes their contributions to the nation.

Community leaders in Buffalo, New York, gathered last week to unveil the African American Veterans Monument. The monument, billed as the first of its kind, pays tribute to Black veterans and active-duty service members across all branches of the military, according to the organization behind the project.

The monument encompasses a 1,200-square-foot area at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, a museum dedicated to US military history. Designed by the late local artist Jonathan Casey and his team at the firm Solid 716, it features 12 concrete pillars -- one for each major war that the US has fought. The 10-foot tall pillars represent candles that military families would light when soldiers went to war, while the space between them corresponds to peace time between each conflict.

The stories of African American service members are also reflected throughout the monument.

"The fact is African American men and women have always been an integral part of US military even though they were not always recognized for their service and often denied the very human rights they fought for," Brenda Moore, a sociology professor at the University at Buffalo, said at the dedication ceremony.

"This monument gives us an opportunity to not only commemorate, but also to educate ourselves and future generations about the contributions and sacrifices African Americans have made to the American ideals of freedom, liberty and justice -- not just for some, but for all."

Black people have historically endured racism and discrimination in the military. During the Civil War, Black soldiers served in segregated units usually commanded by White officers and were paid less than White soldiers. They continued to be shut out of opportunities during World War I and World War II even as the US fought in the name of democracy, and when they returned home after World War II, they were denied many of the benefits of the G.I. Bill. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order ending racial segregation in the military, but it took longer for the changes to be enforced.

About 16% of the country's approximately 1.34 million active-duty service members are Black, according to a Pew Research Center analysis from 2019. Though Black men are overrepresented in the US military, Black service members remain underrepresented in officer ranks, meaning they're more likely than their White colleagues to be injured while serving the country, CNN reported in 2020.