As the World War raged around them, the United States maintained a technical neutrality until April of 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson declared:
“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty…We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”
Entry into the war transformed the United States. In 1914, the United States had a standing army of 120,000 – and now urgently needed to mobilize. The Selective Service Act of May 1917 did not exclude any male of fighting age based on color or foreign-birth. The War Department recognized it could not exclude any individual and that all workers regardless of color were recognized as being of great importance to the war effort.
This is evident by the heroism of Cpl. Benjamin J. Bowie who was drafted into the U.S. Army on Oct. 28, 1917. He served in combat with the 92nd Infantry Division, until he was killed by friendly fire on Sept. 11, 1918. Bowie was the first African American from Los Angeles killed in World War I. American Legion Post 228, 5115 S. Central Ave. in South Los Angeles—the first in California—is dedicated in his honor.
Yet, this was a nation roiling with racial injustice as Americans struggled to define citizenship in a country with laws creating “separate but equal” realities, White and Black. African Americans faced both subtle and overt attacks on their citizenship throughout the country, from horrific domestic terrorism to resegregation and new institutional barriers against housing, employment, and voting rights.
The blatant hypocrisy of this appeal was not lost on Black or White communities of that era. As author Chris Capozzola illustrated in his book “Uncle Sam Wants You” with a letter from Louis S. Apes to his Virginia Congressman, “If this is a White man’s country then this war is a White man’s burden…. the use of [African Americans in war] is an admission… that this is no longer a White man’s country but equally a Black and White man’s country.”
The reasons many African Americans took up the burden of war were the same reasons as their White and foreign-born counterparts: honor, patriotism and the American draft board. For others, the call to fight beneath the claim of “champions of the rights of mankind” rang hollow. Many more within the African American community approached the war as an opportunity to redefine their citizenship and improve social, political and economic conditions within the United States
Although African Americans made up only 10 percent of the United States population, African American servicemen made up 13 percent of the total United States Armed Services during the war.
In withstanding prejudice and reluctance, two predominantly African American combat divisions were formed in WWI. The 92nd Division, under U.S. command, and 93rd Division initially under French command. The 369th Infantry Regiment, part of the 93rd Division, exemplified the capabilities of African American troops, serving the longest of any American combat troops in the trenches and establishing an excellent reputation fighting under the French, earning such nicknames as the “Harlem Hell fighters.” Among the members, a total of 68 Croix de Guerre and 24 Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to men of the 93rd Division along with several unit commendations, making it one of the most decorated American units of the war. Clearly, the performance of the 369th and other African American combat units informed the American military to reconsider its segregation practices in later years.
Black troops fought valiantly in WWI, despite the War Department dropping thousands of leaflets in the French countryside warning women not to fraternize with African American soldiers in informing them of the low social status and level of antipathy held against these men in America. In largely ignoring the staunch segregationist policies of President Woodrow Wilson in consigning Black soldiers to largely non-combat roles such as stevedores and quartermaster corps, Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing did deploy Black soldiers in combat, based largely on his roots as an officer overseeing Black troops in the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers).
Countless African American women stepped forward in strong support of the war effort. While these women were not allowed to serve in Europe, they found varied and successful ways to serve stateside: nurses, ambulance drivers, Navy Yeomen, canteen workers, club administrators, office workers, railroad workers, munitions workers, and as extremely successful fund-raisers with a variety of government organizations and departments, relief organizations, and war industries. African American poet and civil rights advocate, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, was recognized for her mobilization for the Council of National Defense.
Cpl. Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry, in a show of honorable bravery and determination, led his men during an assault after senior officers were killed to take two German trenches, saving the lives of his comrades and giving his life in the process. For his courage, his commanding officer recommended him for the Medal of Honor. Many patriotic acts of sacrifice occurred during the First World War, yet prejudicial descriptions of action or “misplaced paperwork”, like that of Cpl. Stowers, who received his award in 1991, downplayed African American service.
This past discrimination continues to inform our present public memory. In the Allied Victory parade in Paris, France in 1919, African Americans were specifically excluded by high command, which distorts analysis of history through photographic evidence. This factor of institutional racism presents a significant challenge to historians looking to accurately study our history, making it all the more important to engage and support students and historians endeavoring to bring this to light
Americans took a stand for democracy in 1917, whether in battlefield heroism or homefront sacrifice. Their participation created a geo-political shift around the world, still felt today, that buoyed the United States’ economic, political and military power on the global stage. Many leaders during the war left an ambiguous legacy: President Wilson’s vision propelled U.S. to a century of global leadership, affirming its democratic values. In the process, he made choices that failed to honor those values in all his fellow Americans, cementing some of the greatest problems our nation faced in decades to come. Gen. Pershing proudly led our soldiers to victory, while at the same time actively undermined the men who risked their lives to follow him and serve their country.
The success and service of Black Americans in WWI challenged the doctrine of White supremacy, spewing new battles on the homefront. In the summer of 1919, known as the “Red Summer,” the nation faced one of its most extreme periods of interracial violence. Eleven African-American soldiers who had served their country in a time of war were lynched in their uniforms that summer. W.E.B DuBois, with essential patriotism, sounded a call as the war for equal rights continued:
“For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disenfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult–for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight. We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”
The “War to End All Wars” was, in fact, the beginning of countless others. African American involvement in this war did not end racial subjugation or segregation. But the act of putting a uniform on itself was, for some, an act of defiance, and for others, an act of unity and equality. That participation marked the beginning of a modern civil rights movement, a fight to define the true meaning of democracy.
Lora Vogt is the education curator for the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO,