“Safe for Democracy”?: African American Soldiers and the Home Front

The First World War was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, as the US President Woodrow Wilson famously said. His 14 Point plan called for the restructuring of Europe with an emphasis on the self determination of its people but on the American home front democracy and self determination were still complicated issues, especially among African Americans. Racism and instutionalized discrimination shaped their everyday life, both, before and after, the war. But the Great War also brought changes to  the (self-)image of African American veterans and their families.

© IWM (Q 69943)

Troops of the American 369th Infantry Regiment (the Harlem Hellfighters/Black Rattlers), 93rd Infantry Division, Maffrecourt.  THE US ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1918 © IWM (Q 69943)

Allowing African Americans to fight in the army was not a popular decision but the Selective Service Act of 1917 did not exclude African Americans from the draft. “To understand the atmosphere in which the mobilization of African-Americans occurred, it is necessary to be aware of the state or race relations in 1917. It is reasonable to assume that racial segregation was lessening as the time of black slavery receded into the past, but such was not the case. Segregation was growing in 1917. The military, for example, before 1900 had been one of the less segregated American institutions, but after 1900 had become completely segregated” (Mennell 275). Some saw the inclusion of African Americans into the Army as a threat to the fragile racial harmony. The existence of racial harmony itself of course is debatable: “The popular success of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ [(1915), a film which made lynching spectacle a national event and translated the lynching ritual into a narrative of regional reconciliation through racial solidarity,] meanwhile, prompted a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and a surge in racial violence. Racial tension in the country placed the U.S. War Department in a precarious position. The army required the services of African American laborers to mount the mobilization effort, but civil rights leaders, including Joel Spingarn and W.E.B. Du Bois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), insisted that African Americans in the military receive at least a relative degree of equal treatment. Initially, Du Bois demanded the complete integration of the U.S. Army, but, considering the racial tenor of the United States at the time, a move that drastic would not be possible” (Davis 478).  But during training segregation was strictly enforced and loaded arms were kept from African Americans for as long as possible because of the worries of local residents near the training camps (cf. Mennell 283).

But despite these conditions many felt that they had to step up and defend their country. “Patriotism was so intense in America at this time and fear of betrayal so strong that African-Americans had little choice but to submit to military segregation or face the wrath of white Americans as ‘traitors’” (Mennell 278). Many hoped that “fighting Germany could encourage whites to accept the notion that those who fight for their country are entitled to all its privileges” (Mennell 275). Some, however, did refuse to serve, arguing that a nation that allows lynchings and mob violence against African Americans does not value the social contract or civic responsibility (cf. Davis 480).

Because of the effort needed to completely segregate Army bases, African American soldiers were not drafted before October 1917 (cf. Mennell 278). During the training, violent struggles erupted around the bases in the South: In Houston a riot broke out between armed regular soldiers of the 24th Infantry Regiment and white Southerners upon seeing armed African Americans. “Repeated insults and humiliations by local whites finally produced black retaliation and seventeen whites were killed by African-American soldiers armed with military weapons from camp” (Mennell 277).

Once training was finished only few African American soldiers actually saw combat. The 92nd and 93rd Divisions were the only two units that were involved into battles. “The vast majority of African American soldiers were assigned to the service of supply – labor battalions modeled after Southern chain gangs” (Davis 478).

The 93rd Division fought under French command. To prepare the French, the US Army issued “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops”, a document detailing how African American soldiers were to be treated. The US Army was well aware that offering the soldiers a glimpse of equality might risk struggle once the veterans returned home to the US under Jim Crow. Through the document the Army tried to ensure segregation in the trenches of France, saying that it would offend white American soldiers if the French shook hands with the African Americans: “[Americans] are afraid that contact with the French will inspire in black Americans aspirations which to them appear intolerable… Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being with whom relations of business or service only are possible” (qtd in Davis 482).

And the US Army was right. African American veterans returned to a country that was still segregated and allowed the lynching of its citizens. For many, this underlined the hypocrisy of their service and treatment as veterans: “Military service makes an unequivocal case for equal citizenship, so cases of African American veterans threatened with lynching, of their family members lynched in their absence, or their actual lynching expose the hypocrisy of American intervention in World War I and the arbitrary brutality of American racism” (Davis 488).

However, the service of African Americans was considered essential to military success in the future by some and their experiences were remembered in books (cf. Keene 63f). Most readers, however, attributed their success less to their abilities as soldiers but to the white officers: There was a “widespread conclusion within the white community that blacks made fine soldiers if led by white officers” (Keene 64). Hollywood movies marketed towards whites still showed African American soldiers as fools (Keene 70f).

Upon returning, race relations still had not improved as much as some veterans had hoped for. In fact, “[a]t home, racial conditions became worse, not better. In 1918, by which time 367,410 African-Americans had been drafted into the service of the United States and 200,000 were serving overseas, mobs lynched fifty-eight African-Americans. And when the soldiers returned, the number of lychings increased to seventy-seven in 1919. Blacks were lynched for appearing on the street in uniform in Mississippi and Georgia, a tacit admission that military service enhances one’s place in society” (Mennell 284).

As W.E.B. DuBois put it: “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.” Many returning veterans were disenchanted and wanted to fight for equality. The “New Negro” movement was born. It was a product of the domestic and global upheavals of the First World War and its aftermath: Migration to the North (that started after the Civil War), international revolutionary movements as in Russia, radical black press and organizations and the disillusionment from the experience of the war led to an outspoken community of African Americans that demanded equality (cf. Williams 348).

The First World War and their sacrifices did not have the effects many African Americans might have hoped for. Still, it was an important period for the long journey to equality.

 

Bibliography:

Davis, David A. “Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives.” African American Review 42.3/4 (2008). 477-491. Print.

DuBois, W.E.B. „Returning Soldiers.“ The Crisis 18 (1919). 13. Print.

Keene, Jennifer D. “The Memory of the Great War in the African American Community.” Unknown Soldiers: The American Expeditionary Forces in Memory and Remembrance. Ed. Mark A Snell. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2008. 60-79. Print.

Mennell, James. “African-Americans and the Selective Service Act of 1917.” The Journal of Negro History 84.3 (1999): 275-287. Print.

Williams, Chad L. “Vanguards of the New Negro: African American Veterans and Post-World War I Racial Militancy.” The Journal of African American History 92.3 (2007): 347-370. Print.


Helen May

Helen May was a research assistant at Max Weber Foundation, 2015-2016.

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