Why you should care
Because America’s goal of “making the world safe for democracy” did not apply to the treatment of many of its own soldiers.
Imagine it. Paris, July 14, 1919. The first Bastille Day since the “war to end all wars” ended the previous November — 100 years ago today. A landmark celebration of liberation for a people just starting to heal after years of bloodshed. French soldiers, some on crutches or in wheelchairs, march down the Champs-Elysées in the thousands, among them the Algerian and Senegalese warriors whose bravery on France’s behalf has won the hearts of a nation.
Also in that triumphant procession: U.S. General John Pershing, followed by a select group of American officers and about 1,500 U.S. soldiers representing one of France’s fiercest allies. But it is hardly a representative group. Roughly 380,000 African-American soldiers served in World War I, but there’s not a single Black face in Pershing’s group. For America’s military decision makers, the nation’s brave Black warriors were not heroes to be celebrated. They were a problem to be solved.
The Bastille Day celebration was perhaps the first moment that the significance of a major world war was getting etched into the public memory. And the omission of African-American soldiers from that memory was not an oversight. “It symbolized the deeply segregated reality of the American military,” says Chad Williams, a professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University, “and the very conscious effort on the part of the military to try to erase as much as possible the memory and experience of African-American participation in the war.”
In France, Black soldiers basked in the glow of a nation’s gratitude.
“The world must be made safe for democracy,” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously proclaimed before Congress in his April 1917 speech announcing America’s entry into the European conflict. And for millions of African-Americans, as Williams explores in his book Torchbearers of Democracy, the war provided a potentially transformative opportunity to improve their own lives and prove themselves to a nation that had consistently marginalized them.
In the first week after Wilson’s declaration of war, thousands of Black volunteers eagerly signed up to fight — so many that the war department had to stop accepting applications when initial Black quotas were reached. Once the national draft began by order of Congress one month later, Blacks were also disproportionately selected into service, in part because the draft boards, especially in the South, greatly favored White inductees when it came to granting exemptions from service.
Black inductees encountered a similarly racist landscape in the U.S. military. American leaders needed the manpower but were uncertain as to how to use Black soldiers during the war. They fiercely debated the “race question” and kept the races as segregated as possible, which they justified as necessary to preserve “racial tranquility.” The majority of Black servicemen — many to their disappointment — were relegated to noncombatant roles as cooks, mechanics, ditch diggers, stevedores and other menial labor jobs. Nearly half of the African-Americans drafted into service remained in the U.S. serving in labor battalions that resembled prison work gangs or indentured servitude more than military service. “The poorer classes of backwoods negro,” as Colonel E. D. Anderson, chairman of the Army’s Operations Branch, justified the practice in a memo, “has not the mental stamina and moral sturdiness to put him in the line against opposing German troops who consist of men of high average education.”
But thousands of soldiers in the all-Black 92nd and 93rd Divisions did see active combat in France and served bravely. The 369th Infantry, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” fought major German assaults near the Argonne Forest for a total of 191 days in 1918, longer than any other regiment in the American Expeditionary Forces. The soldiers were treated far better by the French forces they fought alongside, and the entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France after the war. “There is not a black soldier but who is glad he went,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote after the war, “glad to fight for France, the only real white democracy.”
In France, Black soldiers basked in the glow of a nation’s gratitude. When they returned home, it was a different story. “The hopes that African-Americans had that their service and their sacrifice would be rewarded were genuinely real,” says Williams. “They fully expected that their rights as human beings would be acknowledged, and of course that doesn’t happen.”
Anti-Black race riots erupted in 26 cities across America in 1919 as portions of White America feared that newly empowered Black men with military training would take liberties and demand change. Dozens of Black men were lynched, including several veterans, some in their uniforms. “It is important to think of the end of [World War I] as a critical moment,” says Williams, “when the United States began to wrestle with its character, its identity and what democracy meant, including for African-Americans.”
Now, 100 years since the end of the Great War, that wrestling continues, as does the battle over how best to remember the service of the brave Black soldiers who risked or gave their lives for a nation that was unprepared to fully value those lives.