"The Colored historian, who records the history of the Colored soldier in this war, will need no imaginative powers to tell of the service, the daring deeds of valor, and the incomparable fighting Colored men did over here in France."
-- Ralph Tyler, the only officially accredited WW1 African American war correspondent.
When America entered the "Great War" in 1917, it was, for African Americans, against a back drop of almost unprecedented discrimination and violence. That year, 36 Black men and women were lynched in the United States.
Also in that year, there was a race riot in East St. Louis, IL and another in Houston, TX. When President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917, there were 10,000 Black men already serving in the regular army - - primarily in the famed Buffalo Soldiers regiments - - with roughly the same number in national guard units in D.C., Maryland, Ohio, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee. Over half a million Black men registered for the draft and more Black men than Whites were called up for service in the armed forces by southern draft boards.
Booker T. Washington had assured the nation of African American loyalty as war ignited in Europe. His death in 1915 raised two of his top men to national prominence: Washington's former secretary Emmet J. Scott, at the nation's capital, and Dr. Robert Russa Moton, at Tuskegee Institute.
Scott later became a Special Assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, the first appointment of its kind for an African American. Scott oversaw the recruitment, training, and morale of Black soldiers.
Important civil rights victories were achieved around this time. In 1915, grandfather clauses in two state constitutions preventing Blacks from voting were ruled unconstitutional. In 1916, the Supreme Court struck down a Louisville, KY city ordinance that required Blacks and Whites to live on separate blocks.
Over 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units in World War 1. Most were confined to the SOS, the Services of Supply, a support unit that provided labor battalions and service regiments. Black combat units were initially sent to fight alongside the French Army, where they wrote a new and inspiring chapter in American battlefield heroics.
The 369th Infantry Regiment, the "Harlem Hellfighters," were under continuous fire for a record-shattering 191 days. The regiment was also given the honor of leading the Allied armies to the Rhine River a week after the signing of the armistice ending the war.
Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts
The Black historian Rayford Logan, a veteran of the war, noted: "The 369th (Infantry Regiment, formerly known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment consisted of African-Americans and African Puerto Ricans) could boast two soldiers, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, who performed one of the most sensational exploits of the war. While on sentry duty at a small outpost on May 14, 1918, these two privates were attacked by a party of from twelve to twenty Germans. Fighting back, although badly wounded, Johnson and Needham routed their attackers. For this feat, the two Negroes were awarded the Croix de Guerre." This was France's highest military honor, the Cross of War.
There was a long struggle over officers' commissions for African Americans. Finally, one training camp was opened in Iowa (From Our Archives: See Largest Black-American War Memorial Opens in Des Moines This Summer). Several hundred Black officers graduated from it before the end of the war.
Black Women and the War
Mary Church Terrell, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Eva D. Bowles, among others, helped mobilize Black women to support the war and give their time and dollars to fight for better conditions for their sons, husbands, and brothers serving stateside or overseas. The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA building in Washington, D.C. is a result of the war work of Black women.
Also, From Our Archives, See : Africa in WWI