Why Black men fought in World War I, 1919

J. A. Jamieson, et al., Complete History of the Colored Soldiers in the World War, New York, 1919. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC06129, title page)During World War I, approximately 370,000 black men in the US military served in segregated regiments and were often relegated to support duties such as digging trenches, transporting supplies, cleaning latrines, and burying the dead. One notable exception is the “Harlem Hellfighters,” organized in 1916 as the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard. Their nickname came from the 200 Harlem residents who comprised the core of the regiment, and the German view of them as “Hellfighters.”

On April 6, 1917, the same day that the United States declared war on Germany, the 15th New York Regiment was federalized and became part of the US Army. In May 1918, it was redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment. They joined the 93rd Division and were “loaned” to the French army, becoming the only American division to serve exclusively under the French. The men spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American unit. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts became the first two Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre. In 1996 they were awarded the Purple Heart and in 2002 received the Distinguished Service Cross.

In 1919, the soldiers returned to the United States and were treated initially as heroes. In the wake of the war, however, there was a surge in racial violence. According to the historian Chad L. Williams, “race riots erupted in several cities, the most significant occurring in Washington, DC, and Chicago. In October 1919, whites in Elaine, Arkansas, massacred hundreds of black people in response to the efforts of sharecroppers to organize themselves. In the South, the number of reported lynchings swelled from sixty-four in 1918 to eighty-three in 1919. At least eleven of these victims were returned soldiers. For African Americans, the end of the war brought anything but peace.”[1]

It was in this environment that five members of the Harlem Hellfighters compiled the Complete History of the Colored Soldiers in the World War, documenting their service and emphasizing the accomplishments of black soldiers. They conclude the book with one officer’s explanation of why he chose to join the army and fight despite the racism that people of color were experiencing in the US.

A partial transcript is available, or view available pages.


From “How Negro Officer Felt about Fighting,” Complete History of the Colored Soldiers in the World War: Authentic Story of the Greatest War of Civilized Times and What the Colored Man Did to Uphold Democracy and Liberty (Bennett & Churchill, New York, 1919), p. 157:

“One of my men came to me several days ago,” [an officer] said, “and asked me why I had joined the army. He reminded me that I was above draft age and he wanted me to tell him what I was fighting for. I told him I was fighting for what the flag meant to the Negroes in the United States. I told him I was fighting because I wanted other oppressed people to know the meaning of democracy and enjoy it. I told him that millions of Americans fought for four years for us Negroes to get it and now it was only right that we should fight for all we were worth to help other people get the same thing.

“We are supposed to have had equal rights for fifty years now, but many times we have thought that those rights have been denied us, and many times it has been held that we have never done anything to deserve them.

“I told him that now is our opportunity to prove what we can do. If we can’t fight and die in this war just as bravely as white men, then we don’t deserve an equality with white men, and after the war we had better go back home and forget about it all. But if we can do things on the front; if we can make ourselves felt; if we can make America really proud of the Ole——th, then I am sure it will be the biggest possible step toward our equalization as citizens. That is what I told him, and I think he understood me. The whole (censored) has the same spirit.”

And so the strife for distinction has been inculcated to the ranks of the Old (censored). The men are looking forward to being known as the “Black Devils,” the same as the Chasseurs have earned the right to the “Blue Devil” nickname.

These Negro officers and men have tasted a new equality since arriving in France. In the village square of a small hamlet serving as headquarters I saw them mingling on the easiest terms with the most cultivated French officers. And as officers they carry out their bearing in their personal appearance. Among no American officers in France now, even the nattiest, whose habitat is at G. H. Q., far from the dust and mud of the camps, have I seen more highly polished shoes and leathers or better pressed uniforms. Pride in the wearing of clothes is something which these Negro officers did not have to learn from orders.

[1] Chad L. Williams, “African Americans in World War I,” Africana Age: African & African Diasporan Transformations in the 20th Century, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-world-war-i.html.