African Americans In World War I

Photo Essay

By declaring war on Germany in April 1917, the United States entered into a conflict of unprecedented scope and brutality that had been raging in Europe since August 1914. To many African Americans, enlisting to fight in the Great War offered a chance to show their patriotism that could hopefully improve their opportunities and treatment at home. Yet racism was as endemic in the armed forces as it was in the rest of America at the time. Southern Democrats tried to block African Americans from inclusion in the draft, few blacks served in the Navy and none in the Marine Corps, and the Army’s four segregated units—the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments—were assigned guard duty on the Mexican border and never went abroad. African Americans comprised 13 percent of active-duty military manpower during World War I, but made up only seven-tenths of 1 percent of the officers.

Despite these inequalities, around 200,000 African Americans were deployed to Europe and served with distinction in the American Expeditionary Force and the French Army. While the vast majority of these troops were relegated to Services of Supplies (SOS) units and labor battalions, some 40,000 soldiers saw combat in two new black units, the Ninety-second and Ninety-third Divisions. Fighting alongside the French, the Ninety-third served heroically throughout the war and experienced greater acceptance and more equal treatment than that found in the U.S. Army. Its 369th Infantry Regiment, "the Harlem Hellfighters," spent more than six months on the front lines—longer than any other American unit—and never surrendered an inch of Allied territory nor lost a single soldier through capture. From this regiment alone, 171 officers and men received either Croix de Guerre or Legions of Merit from the French government. The sacrifice of African American soldiers such as these certainly did not end racism at home or abroad, but it showed the world that their patriotism and heroism unquestioningly matched that of their white counterparts.

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