A Brief Look at African American Soldiers in the Great War

By Matthew Margis

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson undertook a massive propaganda campaign to expand support for the war.  He declared that, America would help make the world “safe for democracy.”  Democracy though, eluded an entire segment of American society who struggled with the realities of Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, and general racist attitudes.  African American citizens across the nation—especially in the American South—had little access to high-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and suffered from disenfranchisement.  Throughout American history, the military served as a prism through which to view larger social concepts, and the First World War was no exception.  The Marine Corps excluded blacks entirely, the Navy restricted their service to menial roles as cooks and stewards, and the Army remained racially segregated.[1]   Despite this, many black men remained eager to reinforce their status as American citizens and fight for their country—hoping this would translate to broader social equality.  By war’s end, roughly 370,000 African Americans served in some capacity.

In order to meet the war’s demands, the War Department reorganized the US Army into a new divisional structure, and established one all-black combat division—the 92nd Division (mostly as a way of appeasing civil rights activists).  This division was comprised mostly of draftees and a select number of black volunteers and African Americans already serving in the Regular Army.  Additionally, the Army created numerous all-black support companies who served in other divisions.  Secretary of War Newton D. Baker also approved the commissioning of black Army officers, and the War Department established an officer training school at Fort Des Moines, Iowa (though few of these officers rose above the junior officer ranks).  However, this arrangement left out the African American National Guard units from around the nation.  Under the new structure, Divisions 1 through 25 were Regular Army units, Divisions 26 through 74 were reserved for the National Guard, and any division above 75 were part of the National Army (draftees).  The War Department rearranged the National Guard by state and by need, and established a series of mostly regional divisions (26-41).  Any Guard unit “orphaned” by this new system became part of the 42nd Division, which Douglas MacArthur described as “stretching across the nation like a rainbow” because it contained elements from 26 states and territories, but none of these divisions included all-black units such as the 8th Illinois or 15th New York.  When the 15th New York asked to join the new 42nd Division, one high ranking official denied their admittance and said that, “black was not one of the colors of the rainbow.”[3]  In order to avoid inciting anger from black civil and political leaders, the Army War College suggested establishing a black National Guard division consisting of two combat brigades.

The new provisional division became the 93rd Division, and included black National Guardsmen from the old 15th New York (369th Regiment) and the old 8th Illinois (370th Regiment).  Additionally, the 371st Regiment consisted of Guardsmen from Washington DC, Maryland, Connecticut, Ohio, and Massachusetts, and the 372nd Regiment included drafted soldiers from South Carolina.[2]  With the inclusion of the 92nd and 93rd Divisions, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) officially included two black combat divisions, but their paths moved in two different directions.  The New York guardsmen became the first American black regiment to go “over there”, and they arrived in Brest, France in late December 1917, after watching white Guard units leave for France as part of either the 27th or 42nd Divisions.  Overall though, the 93rd traveled to Europe in piecemeal fashion, and never fought together as a single element.  The Illinois guardsmen did not arrive until April 1918.  Furthermore, unlike the other Divisions of the AEF, General Pershing violated his own stance on amalgamation when he ceded control of the 93rd to the French army, who in turn, supplied the soldiers with helmets and arms.  In early 1918, the New York troopers assisted French General Henri Gourand in his “elastic defense strategy,” and later in the year the 370th and 372nd regiments fought under Marshall Ferdinand Foch during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  Additionally, the Illinois troops assisted the French during the Oise-Aisne Offensive just prior to the Armistice, where they earned the French Fourragère.[4]

In contrast to the 93rd, the nation’s other African American division did not arrive in France until the middle of 1918.  The 92nd Division took much longer to train and coalesce because they were comprised mostly of draftees without any military experience (and the War Department filled white units first).  Making matters more difficult, even after the 92nd reached full strength, the War Department refused to allow 25,000 black soldiers to train in a single location out of fear of potential violence with local populations (particularly in Southern training camps) and white soldiers.  Therefore, elements of the division trained for combat in locations scattered around the United States.[5]  The division began arriving in France in June 1918, when they were finally able to maneuver and train together as a unified division, though their artillery elements remained in the US.  Because the black officers trained at Fort Des Moines only studied infantry tactics, Army commanders argued that all artillery officers in the 92nd Division should be white.  This debate delayed the training of the 92nd’s artillery companies, and they did not join the rest of their division until late September and early October 1918.

Ultimately, both the 92nd and 93rd Divisions served admirably in combat.  Over 500 soldiers in the 93rd received the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross) and other high honors for gallantry in the face of the enemy, and every regiment received a French unit citation.  However, after the war, the US Army generally ignored the 93rd’s contributions to the war effort because it recorded that “the 93rd Division spent zero days in training in line, zero days in sector, and zero days in battle,” despite the fact that the division suffered over 520 soldiers killed and over 2,600 wounded throughout 1918.[6]  Eventually the US government reversed their position and awarded 75 distinguished service crosses to soldiers in the 93rd, as well as two posthumous Medals of Honor in 1991 and 2015 respectively.  Conversely, the soldiers in the 92nd saw much less combat time.  Though they began training in the trenches in mid-August, they remained in a reserve capacity when General Pershing began his grand, Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  By the end of October, the AEF had suffered heavy losses, and most of the reserve elements moved toward the front.  The 92nd Division began their advance in early November 1918.  Shortly thereafter, the Armistice ended the fighting, but the 92nd had suffered roughly 1,600 casualties (120 KIA).

Though members of both the 92nd and 93rd Divisions served valiantly on the front, the Wilson Administration refused to allow them to march alongside their white counterparts in official victory parades in France after the war.[7]  Their homecoming was also mixed.  For example, when the 369th returned to New York, they received a hero’s welcome and were a source of pride their community.  Their parade through Harlem was certainly a spectacle to behold.  Thousands of others though, returned to segregated communities, and despite serving their nation, Jim Crow laws denied them many of the rights associated with American democracy.[8]  In many ways, the experiences of black soldiers during the First World War did little to change their social status.  Black leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois continued to press for social change, but the “return to normalcy” of the 1920’s and the Depression in the 30’s did little to change social dynamics.  However, the experiences of black soldiers in World War I set the stage for the civil rights movement that emerged after the Second World War, when civil rights activists and black leaders ensured that established authorities would not continue to deny them civil liberties.  The military desegregated in 1948, and ultimately foreshadowed the larger desegregation movement that was about to begin.[9]


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[1] Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 6.

[2] Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy, 71.

[3] Arthur W. Little, From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York’s Colored Volunteers (New York: Covici – Friede, 1936), 46-47.

[4] Frank E. Roberts, The American Foreign Legion: Black Soldiers of the 93rd in World War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004).

[5] Williams, 81.

[6] Roberts, The American Foreign Legion.

[7] Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998), 177-185.

[8] Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri, The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974).

[9] Foner, The Story of American Freedom.

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