More than 350,000 African Americans served in the armed forces during World War I. Many served as support troops, but several units saw combat under French command and a few under American command. Ultimately, African Americans operated in a variety of roles including stevedores, cavalry and medical unit personnel, chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists, and intelligence officers. Their service during “The Great War” would lay the foundations for the modern civil rights movement.
When the United States joined World War I, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. However, these four regiments were not sent overseas to serve in combat but instead were disbursed throughout American held territory.
After a negative reaction from the African-American community, in 1917 the War Department formed the 92nd and 93rd Divisions as black combat units. Although the two combat divisions were formed at the same time, they had very different experiences. The 368th Regiment of the 92nd Division had some early defeats and the entire division had an uphill battle to repair its reputation. On the other hand, the 369th Regiment of the 93rd Division became one of the most-celebrated units known as the famous “Harlem Hellfighters.”
The 92nd was sent to the Western Front to be a part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. After coming under intense German fire and having received less-than-ideal training, several companies “withdrew in disorder,” choosing to retreat to the trenches in an effort to regroup. This loss tarnished the division’s record and the entire division was sent to a quieter section of the front. Their new mission: to “harass the enemy with frequent patrols.” While American leadership was less than content with the unit’s performance, the French awarded members of the 365th Infantry and 350th Machine Gun Battalion for bravery.
The 93nd Division was organized and equipped as a French unit and quickly adjusted to the new assignment. Although experiencing some difficulties like language problems, the black soldiers were generally treated as equals. The 369th Infantry Regiment became famous as “the Harlem Hellfighters,” who were known to have never surrendered an inch of Allied territory nor lost a single soldier through capture. France awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre and honored 171 individuals for “exceptional gallantry in action.” While the 369th is the best-known regiment, the 370th, 371st, and 372nd Regiments also proved themselves on the front lines and received a variety of honors from the French, including the Croix de Guerre, Distinguished Service Cross, Croix de Guerre with Palm, and the French Legion of Honor.
While honorable service was having an impact on how black soldiers were viewed, the war also had an impact on the views of the soldiers. In France, black American soldiers were often treated the same as white American soldiers. Some of the regimental band units, like the 369th Regiment Marching Band, were even treated like celebrities. WWI also revealed to African Americans the stories of blacks from different parts of the globe, including Africa, the West Indies and Canada, all of whom had their own concept of “blackness.” This new Pan-African worldview as well as the soldiers’ experiences of greater acceptance were the kindling for the modern civil rights movement.
5 Resources to Further Explore the Topic:
● IN PHOTOS National Archives “Photographs of the 369th Infantry and African Americans during World War I“ https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/369th-infantry
● IN PERSON National Museum of African American History and Culture exhibit: “Double Victory: The African American Military Experience” Sep 24, 2016 – Indefinitely
● ONLINE Library of Congress online exhibit: “The African-American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship” section“ World War I and Postwar Society” https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart7.html#07a
● IN PRINT “The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in WWI” by Arthur E. Barbeau & Florette Henri
● ON FILM “The Harlem Hellfighters” by History Channel https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/world-war-i-history/videos/the-harlem-hellfighters