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date: 10 April 2021

African American Soldiers in World War Ifree

  • Amanda M. NagelAmanda M. NagelUS Army School of Advanced Military Studies


In the midst of the long black freedom struggle, African American military participation in the First World War remains central to civil rights activism and challenges to systems of oppression in the United States. As part of a long and storied tradition of military service for a nation that marginalized and attempted to subjugate a significant portion of US citizens, African American soldiers faced challenges, racism, and segregation during the First World War simultaneously on the home front and the battlefields of France. The generations born since the end of the Civil War continually became more and more militant when resisting Jim Crow and insisting on full, not partial, citizenship in the United States, evidenced by the events in Houston in 1917. Support of the war effort within black communities in the United States was not universal, however, and some opposed participation in a war effort to “make the world safe for democracy” when that same democracy was denied to people of color. Activism by organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the War Department’s official and unofficial policy, creating avenues for a larger number of black officers in the US Army through the officers’ training camp created in Des Moines, Iowa. For African American soldiers sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the potential for combat experience led to both failures and successes, leading to race pride as in the case of the 93rd Division’s successes, and skewed evidence for the War Department to reject increasing the number of black officers and enlisted in the case of the 92nd Division. All-black Regular Army regiments, meanwhile, either remained in the United States or were sent to the Philippines rather than the battlefields of Europe. However, soldiers’ return home was mixed, as they were both celebrated and rejected for their service, reflected in both parades welcoming them home and racial violence in the form of lynchings between December 1918 and January 1920. As a result, the interwar years and the start of World War II roughly two decades later renewed the desire to utilize military service as a way to influence US legal, social, cultural, and economic structures that limited African American citizenship.

African American Soldiers, 1865–1915

The African American military experience during the early 20th century presented unique conditions and situations due to rigid segregation in the US Army; such unique dynamics were particularly evident during World War I. This generation, knowing only freedom, continued the black freedom struggle begun long before the American Civil War by rejecting the newly created and enacted Jim Crow laws, which attempted in some ways to recreate the societal structures of the antebellum era. After 1865, the US Army reduced the number of United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments to four: the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. The regiments’ post-1865 military service consisted mostly of occupation duty in the American South during Reconstruction and taking part in the occupation and subjugation of Native American populations in the American West. It was in the West that these regiments earned the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” from indigenous warriors.1

By 1898, three of the four African Americans who attended the United States Military Academy had successfully graduated and commissioned as officers in the army (Henry O. Flipper in 1877, John H. Alexander in 1887, and Charles Young in 1889; James W. Smith attended the academy but was formally dismissed one year before commissioning). Significantly, military academies provided only one of two avenues for African Americans to receive commissions. The other method was direct commission, or when the individual possessed requisite skills or expertise that the military required without attending an academy.2 Because of such constraints, when the Spanish-American War occurred, few black officers existed to lead the four Regular Army regiments designated for African Americans. However, two volunteer regiments, the 23rd Infantry Kansas Volunteer Regiment and the 8th Infantry Illinois National Guard, were both manned and officered by African American men.

While the two volunteer African American regiments did not see combat in Cuba, their composition represented shifts that occurred in African American communities throughout the United States as a generation born after slavery ended came of age in the 1890s. This generation, who only knew freedom, sought to extend civil rights and reject Jim Crow laws that state and local governments enacted to restrict African Americans’ movement, employment, and life in every way possible to create a society similar to that of the antebellum era. Their activism, including Homer Plessy’s challenge to segregation on trains, culminating in the 1896 Supreme Court case, extended to black men’s military service.3 Soldiers and officers in both the Spanish-American War as well as the Philippine-American War consistently resisted Jim Crow segregation while in uniform, both on US Army bases and in local communities near those bases.4 Regardless of soldier activism before 1914, intellectual achievement remained a key component of defining the Talented Tenth, or the one in ten black men who, through intellectual pursuits and social activism, became a leader of the race; such an emphasis effectively reduced who might be considered a race man (or race woman, for that matter) when it came to collective racial uplift.5 Individuals, and more specifically men, who possessed superior intellect, talents, or a skill that proved their masculinity and full, not partial, citizenship were labeled as race men, and thereby part of the Talented Tenth. Nevertheless, forms of resistance by soldiers remained critical to black activism.

After the Philippine-American War (1899–1902) that resistance would culminate in the Brownsville Affair. Members of the 25th Infantry Regiment, stationed near Brownsville, Texas, in 1906 continuously challenged Jim Crow laws throughout the city, by ignoring “whites only” signs in establishments like bars or saloons to assert their rights as citizens. White citizens of Brownsville wanted to re-exert as much control over African American soldiers as possible, and rankled at their resistance to the social, cultural, and legal constructs in the city. When a white bartender was killed and a white police officer wounded, white residents had three companies of 167 black soldiers to blame. The community accused the regiment of the violence resulting in the police officer’s wounds and the bartender’s death, but provided no corroborating evidence to prove the accusations or that the soldiers were even in town the evening of the incident. The soldiers refused to say whether they were involved or not. President Theodore Roosevelt, experiencing yet another potential military scandal after the Philippine Commission’s 1901 report documenting the sexual and physical mutilations of Filipino peoples, acted swiftly and severely. Roosevelt ordered Secretary of War William Howard Taft to dishonorably discharge all three companies stationed there.6 The soldiers were not allowed the opportunity to defend themselves against the charges, nor would they receive any semblance of justice until 1973, when the lone surviving member of the 25th at Brownsville received $25,000 as back pay for his pension and an honorable discharge.

As the First World War approached, then, African American soldiers had spent well over a decade engaging in both subtle and overt activism to challenge Jim Crow, discrimination, subjugation, and limited citizenship while in uniform both in the United States and abroad. That constant pressure sometimes led to domestic incidents like the Brownsville Affair, but it also energized the black freedom struggle among military personnel, focusing on the hopes that change in the military would translate to similar shifts in American society, politics, law, and culture.7

Punitive Expedition, 1916

The 1916 Punitive Expedition, which sent US soldiers to Mexico in an attempt to influence Mexican domestic and foreign affairs, bridged the United States’ earlier conflicts of empire and its participation in World War I. The expedition itself was the culmination of a border conflict between the United States and Mexico; the conflict had been marked by cross-border raids and European influence that began during the 19th century. African American soldiers contributed to maintaining order and balance along the border well before 1916, as part of the US military’s show of strength during Mexico’s political instability throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As much as President Woodrow Wilson advocated exporting democracy abroad, some activists formed a plan to address the reality that many Americans did not actually experience democracy on the domestic front. Known as the Plan of San Diego after the city in Texas where it reportedly originated, the plan called for a coalition of African Americans, Native peoples, and Japanese Americans to align for a race war against whites. This 1915 plan was not only discovered but also amplified fears along the border, with white Texans demanding increased border security measures. The discovery of the plan led to further suspicion of black soldiers stationed in the region as well.8 The state of Texas sent Texas Rangers into the area, and their propensity to escalate violence resulted in more violent Mexican rebel attacks, which created a cycle of escalating violence along the Rio Grande.

The escalating violence coincided with further political instability in Mexico, as Venustiano Carranza took control of the government. While Wilson initially refused to recognize Carranza’s legitimacy, he eventually relented in the hopes that stability would return to the border. However, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata opposed Carranza, with both men creating unconventional bands of men in the north and south of Mexico, respectively. Villa’s men participated in raids across the border into Texas and New Mexico, which resulted in Wilson’s secretary of war, Newton Baker, authorizing General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to command an expedition to capture Villa and his men. Those orders were quite vague, so Wilson issued another order to General Frederick Funston, explicitly allowing the creation of a force to pursue and disband Villa and his followers. Fifteen thousand troops were mobilized to take part, including companies of the 10th Cavalry Regiment and the 24th Infantry Regiment, officered by white Americans leading enlisted black Americans, and the 8th Illinois National Guard, comprised entirely of black Americans.9

The expedition crossed the border on March 15, 1916, traveling hundreds of miles, traversing rough terrain, and never capturing Villa. Among the African American soldiers sent to Mexico under Pershing’s command was then Major Charles Young of the 10th Cavalry; his performance and leadership during the expedition earned him a promotion to lieutenant colonel. More specifically, Young’s performance at the June 1916 battle at Agua Caliente—he led a horse-mounted cavalry charge—solidified confidence in his ability to command and train soldiers. Young became a model of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth,” representing leadership, manhood, and citizenship as black America’s war hero. Young’s position even implied that he might become a brigadier general by the time the United States entered the First World War.10 When the expedition failed, Wilson called the soldiers back to the United States in February 1917, where they would await assignments for the coming war in Europe. Those assignments for the four all-black Regular Army regiments would never come.

National Defense Act, 1916

The 1916 National Defense Act was simultaneously a precursor to US entry into World War I and a response to the raids by Pancho Villa, creating consternation for African Americans. Before enacted, the debate in Congress exemplified the challenges African American soldiers would face in the coming war. The bill intended to expand the size of the US Regular Army, almost anticipating that the United States would eventually enter World War I. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lobbied that a few of the regiments created by the National Defense Act be set aside for African American soldiers.11 Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi spoke emphatically against the inclusion of such regiments if the US Army grew according to the provisions in the legislation proposed. Vardaman opposed the training and use of African American soldiers completely, arguing that African American regiments would “be recruited in the South which, in the hands of a ‘hostile President,’ may be used to oppress the whites.”12 Vardaman was adamant that African Americans should not be allowed to serve in the military aside from menial positions. However, John Sharp Williams, Vardaman’s fellow Mississippi senator, disagreed with Vardaman’s assessment. While both men won their seats by utilizing racism, white supremacy, and bigotry to elicit votes, Williams argued that black Americans who enlisted due to the National Defense Act would be doing so under their own free volition, could afford to do so financially, and legally had the right to do so. Regardless of how he or Vardaman felt, Williams recognized that African American men were citizens of the United States.13

After the National Defense Act went into effect, it would have significant consequences for African American soldiers. Since one of the provisions in the act gave the US president the authorization to federalize the National Guard, it impacted which regiments would respond to international crises like the Punitive Expedition and World War I. It would also create difficulties for commissioning African Americans as officers for these newly created regiments, as well as for the expansion of the US Army once President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917 because the current officer training camps refused to admit African Americans as candidates. In response, by mid-1917 the NAACP convinced the frustrating and resistant federal government to ensure that well over one thousand African American men would join the likes of Flipper, Alexander, and Young as officers in the US Army.

United States Enters World War I, 1917

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the First World War with a military that numbered fewer than four hundred thousand men total. Consequently, the United States needed to expand its military force exponentially to complement the Regular Army. As such, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF)—comprised of enlistees, draftees through the Selective Service Act of May 1917, and state National Guard regiments—provided additional manpower to aid the United States in its endeavor in Western Europe. Thus, National Guard regiments consisting of African American soldiers and officers such as the 15th New York and the 8th Infantry Illinois would be redesignated as the 369th Infantry Regiment and the 370th Infantry Regiment, respectively. When the 15th New York formed in 1912, its creation can be credited to a May concert at Carnegie Hall that year, which was conducted by James Reese Europe. Europe closed the concert with an original composition titled “Strength of the Nation”; it was dedicated to the men who had joined the “provisional” all-black National Guard regiment, which would eventually become the 369th, or Harlem’s Hellfighters.14 These New Yorkers represented some of the roughly four hundred thousand African Americans who served in the US Army and AEF during World War I.

Since not all regiments created through the AEF were already formed like the 8th Infantry Illinois and the 15th New York, this expansion meant that newly created regiments would need an officer corps to lead the draftees and enlistees that composed these units. Therefore, the NAACP and other race leaders began lobbying for the commission of African American men to lead the regiments designated for minoritized soldiers. With the help of W. E. B. Du Bois, Joel Spingarn, a Jewish American activist and ranking member of the NAACP, pushed extensively to request an officer’s training camp since the War Department refused to admit African Americans into the already established camp for the US Army. Du Bois argued that increasing the numbers of black officers provided an opportunity for African American men to assert manliness, prove their prowess in combat, and develop as race leaders. In January 1917, a group of African American leaders created the Jackson Group, spearheaded by Giles B. Jackson. That same month, the Jackson Group testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Universal Military Training to urge Congress to create an officer’s training school for African Americans.15 The proposed bill landed on President Wilson’s desk in February, and was forwarded to the Committee on Military Affairs. It sat there until the end of the month, when Du Bois and Spingarn began collaborating to encourage Congress and the War Department to act.

Recruitment for potential trainees began in May 1917 at Howard University; it quickly gained the NAACP’s support and earned enough men to push the federal government to respond. Spingarn and the NAACP succeeded in their endeavor, with the creation of a separate officer’s training camp for African Americans at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in June 1917.16 Inductees in the training camp included Charles Hamilton Houston, who became a commissioned officer in the 92nd Division.17 The first class included 1,250 candidates, 250 of whom had been noncommissioned officers in the Regular Army. Almost half were college graduates, and also had business training. By October 1917, the first black officer class, consisting of 639 new officers out of the initial 1,250 candidates, were commissioned as captains, first lieutenants, and second lieutenants. The men were then assigned to either an infantry or artillery regiment. By the end of the war, approximately one thousand black officers served in the AEF and Regular Army. While its creation resulted in conflict among African American leaders, with some claiming that Spingarn and the NAACP supported Jim Crow segregation because they accepted a separate training camp, the results were clearly an important step for African American men in the US Army. Spingarn, Du Bois, and the NAACP answered this criticism by arguing that while not ideal, a separate training camp would result in trained, educated black officers who would lead black soldiers in combat. Therefore, the separate camp would provide avenues for leadership and collective success, and if black officers led black soldiers to victory in combat, that success would then uplift the race.18

While more black officers leading all-black regiments could be considered a success, a bigger challenge was that these men joined an organization like the US Army and the War Department, where Jim Crow remained entrenched as part of the command structure. Military leadership expressed concerns that a visible and successful black regiment—especially its potential impact upon expanding the limited citizenship experienced by African Americans in the United States—might derail soldiers, and result in an internal civil war. Additionally, US military leadership believed white soldiers would not, and could not, control themselves if faced with a racially charged situation, nor would black soldiers place victory above civil rights activism in uniform. Therefore, many army commanders emphasized segregation as a necessity; if African American soldiers were placed in positions of minor authority over white American soldiers, commanders typically accommodated any complaints regarding the arrangement. According to historian Jennifer D. Keene, “in acquiescing to these demands, the army compromised its own unilateral authority to set internal military policy and direct the behavior of all troops regardless of their preferences. What was at issue was how much power army commanders would have to forfeit in tackling the unprecedented challenge of turning millions of citizen-soldiers into a viable mass army.”19 That internal military policy Keene identified had extensive consequences for soldiers as they arrived in France.

As the United States entered the First World War, mobilization also had consequences for the African American community more broadly, and for those who would not take an active role in winning the war on the battlefield. The War Department’s fears about racial unrest and its impact upon the war effort represented only one facet of the US government’s concerns over how Jim Crow created legal, social, cultural, and economic barriers for African Americans. As such, without a domestic federal investigative service, the War Department created a Military Intelligence Section that explored possible subversion by American citizens courtesy of the 1917 Espionage Act. While African Americans mostly supported the war effort, the federal government sought to ensure their loyalty at all costs. Part of this urgency by the Military Intelligence Section stemmed from rumors of German attempts to instigate unrest in the southern United States, which subsequently increased white Americans’ fears of both class rebellion and racial tension. As a result, organizations like the NAACP were targeted more extensively than others, under the mistaken belief that race leaders received both propaganda and encouragement from Germany to rebel against the US government. For some in the Wilson administration, the NAACP’s activism during the war justified surveillance, since ostensible subversion had occurred. Additionally, documented racial oppression in the United States was not considered dire enough by the Wilson administration to validate such protest, thus government officials concluded that African American race leaders had been influenced by communists.20

Houston Riot, 1917

In late July 1917, the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment transferred from New Mexico to a segregated camp adjacent to Camp Logan, on the outskirts of Houston, Texas. Not long before, the US Army decided to send most of the black Regular Army regiments as far from the battlefields of France as they could. The 25th Infantry Regiment spent the war in Hawaii, the 9th Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines, and the 10th Cavalry in Arizona. The 24th, however, was divided into battalions and sent to both New Mexico and Texas. With the memory of the 1906 Brownsville Affair still influencing white Houstonians’ resistance to black soldiers, frustrations arose when Jim Crow’s direct oversight regarding behaviors and bodies ended at the military camp gates. African American soldiers challenged Jim Crow laws in Houston as well as what white Houstonians considered respectable social behavior between men and women. While many young women engaging in various activities with the black soldiers were simply spending time with their boyfriends, whites in the neighborhood considered them drunks and drug addicts, all stemming from the red-light district.21 Such interactions and judgments provided ample kindling for a violent racial incident to erupt.

And erupt it did. Two black soldiers, Private Elonzo Edwards and Corporal Charles Baltimore, clashed with Houston city police on August 23, 1917, over the arrest of Sara Travers, an African American citizen whose home was the scene of the initial violence that morning. When Lee Sparks and Rufus Daniels, two overtly racist police officers, arrested Travers, Edwards came across them in the streets. It is unclear as to Edwards’s condition: some reports claim he was intoxicated while others state he simply sought to inquire as to the trouble with Travers and why the police were arresting her. Sparks and Daniels struck Edwards and arrested him as well. When Baltimore came through the same neighborhood later that day on a mobile patrol, he was also struck with a pistol and arrested. By that evening, rumors had spread among the 3rd Battalion that Baltimore had perished. When Major Kneeland Snow, the newly minted commanding officer of the battalion, returned to camp from the police station, he did all he could to quell the rumors. Baltimore had even returned to camp with Snow.

Regardless, tensions ran high, and Acting First Sergeant Vida Henry of I Company—Snow’s previous command—informed the major that trouble might occur over this incident. Snow took action by canceling all passes and restricting all four companies to post for the evening. Snow also began the process of gathering the men’s rifles in hopes that disarming them would end the excitement. Henry knew the men far better than Snow did, and understood that the tensions might not ebb as quickly and peacefully as the white officers thought they would. Henry was right. It remains unclear exactly what happened at approximately 8:00 p.m. that evening, when gunfire rang out while the companies continued to turn in their weapons. Upon hearing gunfire, soldiers in all four companies began rushing the tents that each company set up to collect weapons almost simultaneously, in a seemingly spontaneous fashion. The initial cry was of self-defense against a white mob of Houstonians who fired weapons into the camp, one that the soldiers continued to advocate both during their subsequent trials and after conviction from Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary.22 The soldiers who remained in the camp set up a defensive perimeter for the remainder of the evening for fear that indeed a white mob had attacked the camp.

Concurrently, an untold number of men left camp with their weapons, and marched first through Brunner’s End, Sixth Ward, east of camp. In all the commotion, First Sergeant Henry, who had attempted to aid Major Snow in maintaining order, joined the rioters, ordering them to fall in line to march east toward the Houston police station. According to historian Adriane Lentz-Smith, “For the men who followed Vida Henry, self-defense pulled harder than duty.”23 According to eyewitness testimony, the men marched almost in formation through the streets, and fired their rifles in volleys at their chosen targets. Some soldiers, forced into the larger group at gunpoint, broke free as the mass of soldiers continued to move, hiding in ditches or in the woods nearby. The remainder moved south from the camp toward Washington Avenue, through Brunner’s End, and continued southeast toward San Felipe Road. As the casualties multiplied, it became essential to regain control and end the violent riot. The Illinois National Guard, also stationed in Houston, was called upon to help quell the riot. That contingency from Illinois included the G Company of the 8th Illinois National Guard, a unit soldiered and officered entirely by African Americans. The combination of the National Guard’s presence and the rioters’ resolve beginning to break led to peace by the morning of August 24.24

When the dust settled, the remaining members of the 3rd Battalion were transferred back to New Mexico while the others awaited trial. Some journalists and white officers assigned to the 3rd Battalion would later argue that one of the reasons it was more difficult to maintain order was because many of the long-serving noncommissioned officers for the battalion were at the Fort Des Moines officer’s training camp. Three courts-martial charged a total of 117 men of participation in the mutiny and riot. When all was said and done, eighteen men, including Corporal Charles Baltimore, were sentenced to death and executed; eleven additional death sentences were commuted to life in prison. Sixty-four men received life sentences, and another twenty-four a variety of shorter sentences, some as high as fifty years with others as low as two and a half years. Only eleven men who went on trial for the Houston Riot were not convicted.25 Imprisoned at both the United States Disciplinary Barracks and at Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary, many of these men continued to express their innocence and to contend that their actions were taken in self-defense well after the trials concluded. Their letters to the NAACP requesting legal aid professed as much, with the organization taking particular interest in these men.26 Through continued activism and requests for clemency or pardons from multiple presidents during the early 1920s, the NAACP was finally successful by 1926: many sentences were commuted, which resulted in eligibility for parole for many of these men.

Overseas Service

Racial turmoil on the home front certainly shaped decisions by the War Department. Before AEF African American regiments were sent to Europe, the War Department’s General Staff already decided to employ these regiments mostly in noncombatant roles rather than provide them ample combat opportunities regardless of the front-line situation. This decision would actually create problems when draftees and enlistees were funneled to the proper locations for training and assignments: when black soldiers were assigned to noncombatant assignments in a mostly white regiment, such assignments resulted in consistent revisions to initial mobilization decisions throughout the war. White American soldiers could also refuse noncombatant assignments that mostly went to African American soldiers in that they associated a low status with such labor. Indeed, racial tensions remained at the forefront of the War Department’s main concerns, particularly if and when such tensions resulted in violent and deadly reactions like the 1917 Houston Riot. The War Department also sought to avoid instigating critiques from African American organizations with blatant unequal policies for soldiers, knowing that such actions would increase the already difficult task of mobilization and winning the war. Consequently, the War Department managed to maintain discipline while also successfully instituting systematic segregation as the US Army expanded, an attempt to balance the concerns of white and black civilians and citizen-soldiers.27

To accomplish this task, the four Regular Army regiments designated for African Americans remained either in the continental United States, Hawaii, or the Philippines. They were not attached to either the 92nd or 93rd Division, composed of federalized African American National Guard regiments, draftees, and enlistees. For instance, the 9th Cavalry’s time in the Philippines instead of in Europe frustrated its officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Sr. Davis, stationed at Camp Stotsenburg on the island of Luzon, requested a transfer to Europe rather than remain at his current assignment or return to the United States. His request denied, Davis remained with his regiment through the end of the war. Whereas Davis expressed how valuable his experience with the 9th Cavalry was, and how it contributed to his promotion from major to lieutenant colonel, he eventually became bored with the monotony, stating he typically did “the same old thing ‘over again,’ [and] there is little to do but hang around. Well that is what Uncle is paying us for, so we will just have to keep at it.”28 Davis desired to put his knowledge, leadership, and skills to the test on the battlefields of France.

For AEF regiments that composed the 92nd and 93rd Divisions, World War I resulted in a vastly different experience. The majority of men who commissioned from the Fort Des Moines officer’s training camp were assigned to the 92nd Division’s regiments, consisting of the 365th, 366th, 367th, and 368th Infantry Regiments under the command of Major General Charles C. Ballou. The division’s black officers continually experienced segregationist sentiments from its white officers while attending restaurants and local establishments. Also, the War Department’s informal policy regarding black officers impacted promotions and performance evaluations. Major General Ballou contributed to such an environment extensively, claiming that some black officers needed constant supervision, drank heavily, and acted in a seemingly grandiose and pompous manner. Ballou then encouraged white officers to emphasize discipline, resulting in excessive use of courts-martial, demotions, and efficiency boards to maintain what Ballou considered order in the division. Such actions resulted in at least forty-three black officers recommended for reassignment by September 1918 for a variety of reasons. If Ballou attempted to maintain white commanding officers’ confidence in their own leadership and abilities as officers, the toxic environment that Ballou created also meant that black officers could hardly do their jobs.29

Additionally, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions had both been labeled “Provisional,” meaning that no artillery units had been attached before their deployment to France. Without a complete division, it became more difficult to expect that either division would see combat. While the 92nd Division remained attached to the AEF while in France, the 93rd Division, consisting of the 369th, 370th, 371st, and 372nd Infantry Regiments, were reconstituted and attached to the French Fourth Army. General John J. Pershing, the AEF commander, faced extensive pressure from French Marshal Ferdinand Foch to amalgamate AEF divisions into both the French and British units along the front lines to fill in the gaps created through massive losses as the Allied armies continued their assaults on German positions. Pershing resisted amalgamation because he thought it might destroy morale and camaraderie among AEF divisions, if there was no longer a distinct US Army in France. While Pershing asserted this nationalist sentiment, eventually he and Foch compromised, with Pershing transferring the 93rd Division to French command.30 The 93rd would benefit from such an arrangement, as the French retrained the men and provided them with proper supplies, something the AEF had not done for either division. The 92nd would remain without appropriate training and gear for the tasks ahead.

One of the most significant combat experiences for the 92nd and 93rd Divisions was the failed 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive. The only regiment in the 93rd Division to not take part in the offensive was the 370th, which remained with the Oise-Aisne campaign. US military leadership chose to maintain secrecy regarding the battle plan, while the French issued clear instructions and objectives to all units taking part in the offensive. This disparity led to drastically different results for both divisions. The 369th entered combat with the French 161st Division on September 26, 1918, facing heavy machine-gun and artillery fire while charging a heavily defended sector. The 371st and 372nd, attached to the French 157th Division, also experienced heavy fire, with the 371st ordered to fill in a gap between two French units on September 28. Without much information, the regiment pressed forward, and within a few minutes the Germans feinted a surrender to then quickly return to their trenches and fire machine guns. While taking roughly 50 percent casualties, the regiment managed to take out the machine-gun nest, forcing the Germans into a retreat. For the 92nd Division, the battle would not lead to such small victories. The only regiment sent in was the 368th, with the remaining three regiments kept in reserve. The 368th, also ordered to fill in a gap in the line, did not have nearly as much direction as their 93rd Division counterparts. The 368th’s limited experience in the field—coupled with rapid redeployment and a toxic command culture—created a recipe for disaster given an environment where limited information was provided to officers when they entered combat. The regiment was also poorly supplied; when the unit was sent into the fray on September 26 with no artillery support and no one to cut barbed wire, unsurprisingly it did not go well. Communication and organization broke down quickly, and by September 28, the operation was complete chaos. Heavy German artillery fire halted the 368th, and a disoriented command structure resulted in some companies retreating, causing that part of the line to collapse. News of the failure traveled swiftly, resulting in the entire 92nd Division removed from the front by October 5, 1918.31 While the 92nd Division’s failure was just one of many in the offensive, no other divisions were punished in a similar way as the 92nd.

Regardless of the experiences of Meuse-Argonne, another battlefield encounter became highly significant for African Americans. It occurred four months prior, in May 1918. Needham Roberts of New Jersey and Henry Johnson of New York, both members of the 369th, were part of a small observation post and intent on guarding against German ambushes. At approximately 2:30 a.m., Roberts heard something, and told Johnson. The other three in the party were asleep. While Roberts and Johnson sent up a warning flare, roughly twenty-four Germans in a raiding party attacked, first with grenades and then with gunfire. Roberts was seriously wounded in the first attack, but supported Johnson by providing grenades. Despite receiving multiple gunshot wounds himself, Johnson kept throwing as many grenades as he could. Johnson then used his rifle to fire at the Germans, but the gun jammed, so Johnson fought the Germans off by hand-to-hand combat, using his rifle as a club. The Germans attempted to take Roberts as a prisoner, but were unsuccessful when Johnson took hold of a bolo knife and killed a German soldier by stabbing him through the skull. Johnson kept fighting, killing a second German while also taking yet another bullet himself. The raiding party retreated, with Johnson continuing to throw grenades until he was certain the Germans had gone; he then collapsed due to taking twenty-one wounds in the melee. Combined, Johnson and Roberts killed four Germans and significantly wounded at least twelve more. While the white American press portrayed the two men as “savage” and “demonic” for their actions, the African American press told a very different story. They labeled Johnson as a modern-day Crispus Attucks, placing their actions alongside the 54th Massachusetts’s charge of Fort Wagner and the Buffalo Soldiers’ attack at San Juan Hill as worthy of honor, respect, and celebration.32 The New York Age claimed, “Not since the entry of the United States in the World War has such a glowing account of the bravery and daring of the American soldier on the French battle field been received on this side.” The Chicago Defender asserted Johnson and Roberts were “serving their Race and their country ‘over there,’ who, displayed remarkable courage and bravery.”33 While celebrated at the time, neither Roberts nor Johnson earned an American Medal of Honor for their actions. Johnson was one of the first Americans to earn the French Croix de Guerre for his actions, one of that nation’s highest military honors, but his American honors would wait until well after his death in 1929 from complications due to his combat injuries. The United States finally awarded Johnson with the Purple Heart in 1996, the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002, and the Medal of Honor in 2015.

Immediate Postwar Experience

After the armistice took effect on November 11, 1918, African American soldiers serving abroad began their return home from the fields of France. Their welcome home was decidedly contradictory. For some AEF regiments, including the 369th Infantry Regiment, parades down city streets greeted them upon their arrival. In February 1919, an estimated one million New Yorkers lined Fifth Avenue between Madison Square and Harlem to celebrate the Hellfighters, who, as a regiment, received the Croix de Guerre from France.34 Such a warm reception in Manhattan implied that the war to “make the world safe for democracy” would do just that for minoritized American citizens.

However, that reality would still be far off for many Americans. African American veterans’ wartime experience, domestically and internationally, as well as interactions with French soldiers and civilians clashed with life in a Jim Crow United States, which led to a growing militancy among black veterans. For some veterans, return to the United States would not provide as many opportunities as remaining in France. While deployed, African American soldiers noted that people of African descent had more upwardly mobile financial and social prospects in France than the United States. Additionally, some Parisians welcomed African American soldiers, treating them more respectfully and decently than the hostility, racism, and segregation they knew in their home country. Essentially, African American veterans who emigrated to France essentially did so for the same reasons many immigrants migrated to the United States: economic, social, cultural, and political opportunities. While racial discrimination existed in France as well, French citizens created a distinction between colonial African populations and African Americans, viewing black Americans as “American” rather than “African.”35 As many black veterans journeyed back to the land of Jim Crow, they sought to work toward ending inequality in the United States, knowing that if full citizenship were achieved, it would be done by black activism, not white political assistance.36 That militancy clashed with the deadly combination of growing nativism, racism, and white violence throughout 1919. Referred to as Red Summer, this eruption of racial violence, lynching, and riots throughout the United States represented attempts to hinder the activist impulse growing among African American veterans, who sought to assert their manhood and citizenship when returning home, refusing to acquiesce to Jim Crow once again.37

As a result, between December 1918 and January 1920, eighteen documented lynchings of black soldiers and veterans occurred, all south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The NAACP investigated as many of these cases as they could, provided adequate documentation existed to do so. In some cases, including a lynching in Pickens, Mississippi, of an unnamed black veteran, it was more difficult. In others, like that of Bud Johnson in Milton, Florida, plenty of documentation existed. When on furlough in March 1919, Johnson was accused of attacking a white woman in the town of Pace, near Milton, in the Florida panhandle. Johnson was home to put his father’s affairs in order after his father passed away. Johnson inherited the family property, which was reportedly desired by local whites. According to testimony from Reverend H. A. Bryan, this was the real reason Johnson was lynched. Bryan asserted that Johnson was prompted to turn over his father’s land as payment for debts, but when Johnson asked for an exact figure, the men who confronted Johnson refused to provide that information. Reportedly, a mob of about 250 white men formed to attack Johnson, with someone in the mob yelling, “‘get ropes, get coal oil and gasoline and let us burn this negro up. He is bigoty. He is saucy. He thinks he is a soldier.’”38 Bryan’s testimony also claimed that the mob, while in the act of lynching Johnson, said they would find a white woman to testify that Johnson attempted to rape her, thereby justifying murder. Johnson’s lynching was just one of many in the aftermath of the war to “make the world safe for democracy.”

In the midst of increased racial tension and violence after the war, the War Department began scrutinizing its experiment with African American officers. High-ranking officers argued that creating Fort Des Moines signified accommodation and pressure from outside organizations, not military necessity. Most white officers expressed disappointment with black officers’ performance, claiming they should be left out of most future programs save support branches. To measure the efficacy of black officers in the US Army, the Army War College tested black and white officers, measuring intelligence; the War College reported higher scores on average for white officers. The results for African American officers were also broken down by skin color—light-skinned versus dark-skinned—with a reported conclusion that the former scored higher than the latter but neither scored higher than white officers. The War Department could limit black officers’ options throughout their military careers as a result. W. E. B. Du Bois; Charles Young; Emmett J. Scott, the special assistant of Negro affairs to the secretary of war during World War I; and other African American leaders argued that the study itself was biased and made sweeping generalizations rather than providing a fair examination of service.39 Regardless of such criticism, African American officers and enlisted men were relegated to small roles in the interwar US Army, which would bleed into the start of World War II. Du Bois’s “Returning Soldiers” rang true throughout the interwar years and beyond:

We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting.

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.40

Discussion of the Literature

The secondary literature on African American soldiers in World War I is consistently growing, as more and more scholars expand their focus on one of the most impactful wars in the 20th century. Some of the earliest publications about African American soldiers in World War I came from political appointees, journalists, or soldiers themselves. This includes Emmett J. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War and W. Allison Sweeny’s History of the American Negro in the Great World War.41 As with other US wars, before the 1960s, African Americans or white American officers who commanded African American regiments usually wrote histories of black American military exploits. It was the historiographical shift of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, with scholars focusing more on race, gender, and class, that created a renewed interest in studying the contributions of African American soldiers in World War I. This turn to “history from the bottom up,” or social and cultural history, emphasized the individual experiences of Americans from a variety of backgrounds within the context of larger historical events. By doing so, historical scholarship on African Americans and the First World War presented answers to new questions and sought to fill gaps in the larger field of US military history.

With that renewed interest came a wealth of scholarship since the 1970s, one that has only deepened in the 1990s and 2000s. Such scholarship includes The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri.42 Significantly, Barbeau and Henri assert that the history of the United States in World War I could not be fully understood without African American military participation. With Barbeau and Henri as a springboard of sorts, other scholars such as Marvin Fletcher and Gerald W. Patton began examining the role of black soldiers and, more particularly, officers in the US military. That vein of scholarship continues to grow in the 2000s, including Isaac Hampton II’s The Black Officer Corps: A History of Black Military Advancement from Integration through Vietnam and Adam P. Wilson’s African American Army Officers of World War I: A Vanguard of Equality in War and Beyond.43 These works provide an important narrative for understanding early 20th century military service for African Americans, and its impact upon the larger African American community as part of the larger black freedom struggle, its legacy in the Double V Campaign of World War II, and the view of military service as an avenue to racial uplift and citizenship.

Other scholarship includes the traditional military history focus, on either divisions or regiments, to tell the story of these men and their struggles. Many focus on one regiment out of eight that went overseas to fight in the First World War: such work includes Bill Harris’s The Hellfighters of Harlem: African-American Soldiers Who Fought for the Right to Fight for Their Country, Stephen L. Harris’s Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African American 369th Infantry in World War I, John Howard Marrow and Jeffrey T. Sammons’s Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality, Peter Nelson’s A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home, Frank E. Roberts’s The American Foreign Legion: Black Soldiers of the 93d in World War I, and Donald Thompson’s James Reese Europe’s Hellfighters Band and the Puerto Rican Connection.44 While the storied Hellfighters of Harlem provide a riveting story, other scholars, like Chad Williams in Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I and Richard Slotkin in Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality have widened their scope to encompass a more complete narrative of African American military participation in the First World War.45

Finally, some scholars have continued to transform the ways in which students of history conceptualize military history. Their focus on social, cultural, and political implications upon the men and women serving in the US military provides the human dimension, showing the stories from the soldiers’ perspective rather than a focus on military operations. This shift toward what some call “new” military history emphasizes John Keegan’s assertions in The Face of Battle (1976) that militaries are products of the societies from which they come.46 Therefore, examinations of military service through such lenses as race, gender, citizenship, culture, and politics connect individual experiences to the overarching trends and themes highlighted in other subfields of US history. Such works include Nancy K. Bristow’s Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War, Adriane Lentz-Smith’s Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I, Jennifer D. Keene’s Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America, Minnie Finch’s The NAACP: Its Fight for Justice, Theodore Kornweibel Jr.’s “Investigate Everything”: Federal Efforts to Compel Black Loyalty During World War I, Mark Ellis’s Race, War, and Surveillance: African Americans and the United States Government During World War I, and Patricia Sullivan’s Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement.47 A gap in the scholarship, however, is a focus on black American nurses during the First World War. Very little scholarship exists examining black women’s roles as nurses in World War I. Darlene Clark Hine’s Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890–1950 and Andrea Patterson’s “Black Nurses in the Great War: Fighting for and with the American Military in the Struggle for Civil Rights” remain some of the few works on the topic.48 By connecting the First World War to this larger context, it becomes all that much clearer how impactful the First World War was upon its participants and those who remained on the home front. As a result, the next few decades of US history are more distinctly understood as the radical and transformative decades they were regarding social, cultural, political, and economic shifts, leading to further activism and resistance among African Americans in the long black freedom struggle.

As the secondary literature continues to evolve throughout the decades, it has taken on the new focus of citizenship to complement previous strains like manhood, liberty, and resistance to Jim Crow. These revisions to the narrative are important, as these contributions complicate the story and encourage continued examination of the First World War and African American military service. Such scholarship enrichens the larger fields of both US military history and African American history, providing new interpretations of the past and lines of inquiry as young scholars continue their research in such a vital subject area.

Primary Sources

African American military participation in the First World War was not only part of a long tradition of military service in the United States but also significantly impacted the ways in which African Americans viewed military service and activism. There is no shortage of literature and collections regarding their service at archives throughout the United States. The most extensive US Army files, including after-action reports, are housed in the National Archives at the College Park facility for World War I, and at the Washington, DC facility for the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. The Leavenworth prisoner files associated with the Houston Riot can be found at the National Archives in Kansas City. The National Archives in St. Louis also houses the remaining personnel files from World War I that survived the infamous 1973 fire. Additionally, the Library of Congress Madison Reading Room in Washington, DC houses the extensive NAACP records collection as well as multiple family papers collections of African American soldiers in the First World War. Another way to access the NAACP records is through ProQuest History Vault, which includes digitized files from the extensive microfilm collection of those records. One can also find soldiers’ personal papers collections at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The US Army Heritage & Education Center at Carlisle Barracks holds the Benjamin O. Davis Sr. papers as well as the 1930s surveys African American service members from 1898 to 1902, while other officers’ paper collections including Henry O. Flipper can be found at the United States Military Academy Library’s Special Collections archive. Finally, the University of Minnesota’s University Archives in Minneapolis houses a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) collection that is rife with documentation about African American soldiers in the First World War.

Further Reading

  • Barbeau, Arthur E., and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974.
  • Bristow, Nancy K. Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Carby, Hazel V. Race Men: The W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Donaldson, Le’Trice D. Duty beyond the Battlefield: African American Soldiers Fight for Racial Uplift, Citizenship, and Manhood, 1870–1920. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2020.
  • Ellis, Mark. Race, War, and Surveillance: African Americans and the United States Government During World War I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
  • Fletcher, Marvin. The Black Soldier and Officer in the United States Army, 1891–1917. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974.
  • Gatewood, Willard B., Jr. “Smoked Yankees” and the Struggle for Empire: Letters from Negro Soldiers, 1898–1902. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1987.
  • Gilmore, Glenda E. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Glasrud, Bruce A., ed. Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers: Perspectives on the African American Militia and Volunteers, 1865–1917. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.
  • Hampton, Isaac, II. The Black Officer Corps: A History of Black Military Advancement from Integration through Vietnam. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013.
  • Harris, Stephen L. Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African American 369th Infantry in World War I. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2003.
  • James, Jennifer C. A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Keene, Jennifer D. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Lentz-Smith, Adriane. Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Marrow, John Howard, and Jeffrey T. Sammons. Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2014.
  • Nelson, Peter. A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home. New York: Civitas Books, 2009.
  • Slotkin, Richard. Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.
  • Stovall, Tyler. Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Lights. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Sullivan, Patricia. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: New Press, 2009.
  • Summers, Martin. Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900–1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Thompson, Donald. James Reese Europe’s Hellfighters Band and the Puerto Rican Connection. Sarasota, FL: Parcha Press, 2008.
  • Williams, Chad. Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Wilson, Adam P. African American Army Officers of World War I: A Vanguard of Equality in War and Beyond. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.