Photo Essay - African Americans in World War I

True Sons of FreedomCourtesy of the Library of Congress

World War I has been called "the Great War" and "the War to End All Wars." Upon entering the conflict in 1917, the U.S. government began to describe it as a war to "Make the World Safe for Democracy." To sell the war to an isolationist American public, the Committee on Public Information, under the direction of George Creel, undertook a massive propaganda campaign defaming German "Huns" and extolling American heroism. Published in Chicago in 1918 by Charles Gustrine, this poster shows African American soldiers routing their German foes, beneath a head-and-shoulders portrait of Abraham Lincoln with the quote "Liberty and Freedom Shall Not Perish." Despite this noble sentiment, many black soldiers faced discrimination, segregation, and the threat of violence after completing their service and returning to their homes.

Machine GunnersImage from: Scott, The American Negro in the World War (1919).

The horrific conditions and terrible loss of life that characterized World War I resulted in large part from the application of nineteenth-century tactics to twentieth-century military technology. New weapons such as armored tanks, improved artillery, airplanes, flamethrowers, poison gas, and machine guns transformed the face of war and resulted in such a high number of deaths that the generation that fought in World War I has been called "the Lost Generation." Although American soldiers did not suffer as many casualties as their European counterparts, modern military technology took a terrible toll on both sides. This photograph shows two African American soldiers training with a machine gun in the Marne region of France, 1918.

The TrenchesImage from: Scott, The American Negro in the World War (1919).

Perhaps the most iconic image from the Great War is of trench warfare. Long periods of waiting were punctuated by bloody forays into "No Man's Land" between enemy lines, where countless men could be killed in a matter of minutes. Neither side, however, was able to overwhelm the other's lines, and the front remained static for years. Between deadly attempts to break the stalemate, soldiers in the trenches suffered from miserable conditions, inclement weather, and a number of diseases. This photograph from the Western front shows African American and black French Colonial soldiers in a French trench.

ID CardImage from: Scott, The American Negro in the World War (1919).

All soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force were issued Identification Cards printed in English and French. Each card listed the soldier's name, rank, duty and signature, as well as a photo and an identification number that also appeared on the individual's metal dog tags. This card belonged to Captain Dee Jones of the 366th Infantry, supply detail.

James Reese EuropeCourtesy of the National Archives.

Before enlisting in the army in 1916, James Reese Europe was a celebrated composer, conductor, and musical director in New York City. In 1912 he led 125 singers and instrumentalists in a "Symphony of Negro Music" at Carnegie Hall in the first performance by a black orchestra at the famous venue. Later he toured the country with his Society Orchestra and the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, revolutionizing American social dancing and popularizing formerly objectionable ragtime dances such as the fox-trot. In the fall of 1913, Europe's Society Orchestra became the first black musical group to sign a contract with Victor Records, for which they produced ten recordings of dance music. As a member of the "Harlem Hell Fighters," Europe served as the leader of the regiment's outstanding brass band and as commander of a machine gun company. He served on the front for four months, was the first black American officer to lead troops in combat in WWI, and introduced European audiences to the live sound of American ragtime, blues, and a new genre called "jazz." After participating in the welcome-home parade up Fifth Avenue on 17 February 1919, Europe was signed to a second recording contract and he took his band on a tour of the United States. Tragically, he died a few months later after being stabbed during the intermission of a concert in Boston by a band member, cutting short a career of seemingly endless potential and robbing history of one of the early great jazz bandleaders and composers. Following the first-ever public funeral in New York City for an African American, Europe was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Red Cross WorkersCourtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The American Red Cross was one of the first support organizations approached by black women seeking to help the war effort. In many northern cities, they worked side by side with white women, while in the South black women served in segregated units such as the Booker T. Washington branch in Tampa, Florida. Excluded from national service until June 1918, black women eventually served in six black base hospitals registered by the American Red Cross that served approximately 38,000 black soldiers. While few black nurses were called to overseas duty before the armistice, it is estimated that over three hundred black nurses served overseas by passing for white. This photograph from a postcard shows Red Cross workers at a surgical dressing unit in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1918.

Henry JohnsonImage from: Scott, The American Negro in the World War (1919).

A twenty-one-year-old railroad porter from Albany, New York, Henry Johnson became one of the heroes of the war. On the morning of 14 May 1918, Johnson was on guard duty with fellow private Needham Roberts at a bridge near the Aisne River in the Argonne Forest. Surprised by a German patrol of around twenty-five soldiers, both men were wounded and Roberts captured. Johnson then attacked the Germans with his rifle, a grenade, and a bolo knife, killing at least four, wounding ten, and driving off the rest. Reinforcements arrived to find the two exhausted men laughing and singing; Roberts had been wounded five times and Johnson twenty-one times. Both men became the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm, the highest French military honor. Although this photograph shows Henry Johnson in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City, no black serviceman was awarded the Medal of Honor for service in WWI until Johnson received the medal posthumously in 2003.

Needham RobertsImage from: Scott, The American Negro in the World War (1919).

A Boy Scout from Trenton, New Jersey, Needham Roberts was seventeen years old when he and Henry Johnson won their victory over the German attack squad. After receiving the Croix de Guerre with Johnson, Roberts was promoted to sergeant and returned to the United States to receive treatment for the grenade wounds he suffered during the fight. Because of their heroism, both men became celebrities whose pictures were treasured as keepsakes by many African Americans proud of their achievement. This photograph of Roberts was published in The Crisis, vol. 18, no. 1, in May 1919. He is wearing the Croix de Guerre, with Gold Palm, two service stripes, and two wound stripes.

The KaiserImage from: Scott, The American Negro in the World War (1919).

Allied troops never set a foot on German soil in World War I, but the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was the focal point of much Allied propaganda. Portrayed as a warmongering tyrant and the enemy of democracy, the Kaiser was the personification of the German foe. Contemporary British sources in fact referred to the conflict as "the Kaiser's War." Wilhelm II relied increasingly on Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff as the war dragged on, but remained the supreme head of the German Empire until his abdication in November 1918. This photograph shows Corporal Fred McIntyre of the 369th Infantry with a photograph of the Kaiser he captured from a German officer while raiding a dugout.

Motor Corps WomenCourtesy of the Library of Congress

The Red Cross Motor Service was initiated to deliver supplies, transport troops to and from the front, and to help Red Cross workers bring aid to isolated hospitals and devastated French villages. Organizations such as the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW), the Smith College Relief Unit, and the American Committee for Devastated France (ACDF) employed women drivers throughout the war zone in France. Although volunteer drivers played an important role from the beginning of the war, the Motor Corps became especially influential in and after 1918. The volunteer women shown here are helping a wounded soldier from an ambulance into a theater where a show is being given for wounded black soldiers.

Max Killie, WWI VetCourtesy of the Library of Congress

African American soldiers fought nobly in the war but were usually better recognized by foreign governments than by the United States. Many, in fact, received a hostile and violent reception after the pomp and circumstance ended and they returned to their former lives. Despite the hopes of many black soldiers and volunteers, race relations in America were not improved by African American sacrifices in the Great War. Of the 382 known black lynching victims between 1914 and 1920, some were recently discharged soldiers still wearing their uniforms. Still, black veterans were rightfully proud of their service. This picture from 1941 shows Mr. Max Killie at his home in Heard County, Georgia, beside a picture of himself in his World War I uniform.

RemembranceCourtesy of the Library of Congress

Despite the fact that World War I occurred in the midst of what is commonly considered the nadir of American race relations, the period roughly from 1880 to 1940, African American veterans were not entirely forgotten. This victory monument on the South Side of Chicago honors the 8th Illinois Regiment, which served with distinction in France and was "the first to be commanded entirely by black men." Jack Delano photographed these high school students at the monument in Chicago in April 1942. The 369th Historical Society has a museum in Harlem, New York, that also honors the famed regiment known as the Harlem Hell Fighters.