African-American soldiers had fought bravely for their country during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the Spanish American War. But racial equality was still only a dream both inside and outside the military. Thus America’s entry into World War I in 1917 sparked a vigorous debate within black communities throughout America. Columbia University law student Randolph Owen and others noted that race prejudice had actually been increasing in America. (Lanning 129) But W.E.B DuBois noted that blacks had been making considerable economic progress and urged, “Let us not hesitate. Let us, while the war lasts, forget our special grievances, close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens in the Allied Nations that are fighting for democracy.” (Astor 108)
World War I was an unpopular war. Draft boards seemed more than happy to draft nonwhites, even those who were physically unfit, so that whites could stay home. (Astor 109) The draft statutes for World War I specifically called for racial segregation within the military. African-Americans who received their military training in the South ran right into Jim Crow. Major J.F. Floyd of South Carolina spoke for most of his fellow Southerners when he declared, “I am sorry they(the 15
Regiment of the New York National Guard)have been ordered here, for with their northern ideas about racial equality, they will probably expect to be treated like white men. I can say right here they will not be treated as anything except negroes.” (Astor 110)
Most black soldiers ended up fighting in France, where they were treated quite well- although the French high command was aware that “white Americans become greatly incensed at any public expression of intimacy between white women and black men.” (Astor 115)
The commander of the black 369th regiment, Colonel William Hayward, was loyal to his troops, but critical of General John J. Pershing; “Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.” (Astor 115) The French provided the “Men of Bronze” French rifles, French helmets, and French rations. (Lanning 138) The French even provided recognition for the men of the 369
. 171 officers and soldiers received the Legion of Merit from the French government. (Lanning 139)
The heroism of black soldiers did not receive official recognition from the American government until seventy-two years after the conflict. Historical research prompted President George H.W. Bush to award a Medal of Honor to family members of Corporal Freddie Stowers on April 19, 1991. (Lanning 143)
Questions for Discussion:What problems did African-American soldiers face during World War One?
What role can historians play in correcting injustices of the past?