The Chronicle Review

Roots of Freedom

Historians reveal 
African-Americans’ role 
in the Great War—and how it influenced later civil-rights struggles

Bettmann, CORBIS

Soldiers in the 369th Regiment were among 380,000 black Americans who served in World War I, an experience that shaped future civil-rights activism but was long neglected by historians.
May 19, 2014

On the morning of July 14, 1919, some two million visitors swarmed Paris for a parade celebrating the Allied victory in World War I. Thousands of France’s wounded soldiers headed the march down the Champs-Élysées. The parade was one of the biggest moments of the immediate postwar period. And, as Chad L. Williams recounts in his recent book, Torchbearers of Democracy, it featured troops from various countries that had fought alongside France, among them a prominent American contingent led by General John J. Pershing. "The entire Allied world was present," Williams writes.

With one exception: African-American soldiers.

Some 380,000 black servicemen had fought and labored in the war, and 200,000 had been dispatched to Europe with Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces. But the U.S. military made a conscious decision to leave them unrepresented in the victory parade, says Williams, a Brandeis University historian. That decision fit a pattern. During the war, he says, racist officials maligned the contributions of African-American soldiers.

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The prospect of blacks’ playing a prominent role in the Army aroused fear in an institution rooted in white supremacy. Success on the battlefield could translate into demands for equal rights back home. White officials demeaned black officers as incompetent. And for years, the notion persisted that African-Americans had not made a significant contribution to the war.

Torchbearers of Democracy (University of North Carolina Press) is part of a wave of recent studies that is challenging that view. With the centennial of the Great War beginning this year, new works of historical and literary scholarship focus fresh attention on this period as a dynamic moment in African-American history, one that inspired a racial awakening and a surge of political and cultural energy. What’s emerging from the new scholarship is a sense of a longer civil-rights struggle, one that dates to the World War I era.

"We tend to talk about the civil-rights movement as if it came out of nowhere with Brown in ’54. But there’s actually a deeper story."

"We tend to talk about the civil-rights movement as if it came out of nowhere with Brown in ’54," says Adriane Lentz-Smith, a historian at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I (Harvard University Press), referring to the Supreme Court decision that deemed segregation in public schools unconstitutional. "But there’s actually a deeper story … that you lose if you take this truncated view."

To appreciate that deeper story, it helps to remember the degraded citizenship experienced by blacks on the eve of World War I. In 1896 the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision had upheld segregation. Millions of African-American farmers in the South remained stuck in what Williams describes as "slavery-like conditions." State governments eroded blacks’ voting rights through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other tactics. White Southerners used lynching as a tool of social control. Those vigilante killings, Williams writes, were often "advertised in advance and attended by sometimes thousands of people, who shot, stabbed, burned, and mutilated black men and women as a grisly form of public entertainment and cultural bonding."

Northern blacks, too, experienced violence, in the form of race riots in cities like New York (1900) and Springfield, Ill. (1908). When President Woodrow Wilson led the United States into war, in 1917, proclaiming that "the world must be made safe for democracy," blacks hoped the war would result in an expansion of their rights.

Bettmann, CORBIS

African-American troops in the 369th Regiment march up Fifth Avenue during a segregated victory parade in February 1919.

Those were the stakes for the men who styled themselves the "Harlem Rattlers." In another new book, Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow Jr. offer what may become the definitive account of that regiment—the most famous black combat force in World War I—based on 10 years of research and previously unexamined documents. Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality (University Press of Kansas) describes how the creation of this New York-based regiment became a political football, how its troops faced racism wherever they trained, and how the men ended up fighting in the French Army—where they became some of the first major U.S. combat heroes of the war. Also, the regiment’s band introduced jazz to Europe.

If that sounds like a Hollywood movie, the story may soon become one. Or a version of the story, anyway. Sony and the actor Will Smith have reportedly optioned the film rights to a graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters, that spins a fictionalized yarn about the regiment.

Robert Newcomb, U. of Georgia; Duke Photography; Brandeis U.; NYU

Historians unearthing the black experience in World War I include, clockwise from upper left, John H. Morrow Jr. of the U. of Georgia, Adriane Lentz-Smith of Duke U., Chad L. Williams of Brandeis U., and Jeffrey T. Sammons of New York U.

During a recent lecture in Washington about their own book, Sammons, a professor at New York University, and Morrow, a professor at the University of Georgia, trashed that graphic novel. As Morrow put it: "I’m just going to say something very bluntly. Who in the hell would come up with the idea of basing a feature film … about real people who actually existed, based on a novel that, when you read it, has no basis in historical fact, except in a very general fashion?"

Here’s the real story. In New York, where activists had spent years pushing for a black regiment in the National Guard, the unit was finally formed, in 1916. In South Carolina, where the regiment was sent to train the following year, its presence nearly provoked a riot. In France, to which the regiment was shipped early because nobody knew what to do with it in the United States, its troops initially worked as stevedores in labor battalions—the demeaning fate of most black troops in World War I.

Not these troops, ultimately. Gen. Philippe Pétain, the French Army’s commander on the Western front, got wind of the regiment’s arrival in early 1918. Hungry for troops, he persuaded Pershing to give him the soldiers. The French Army welcomed and trained them, an "incredible experience," Morrow says, for troops who had never been treated as equals by whites. The regiment saw combat long before most of the U.S. Army did, and excelled from the start. Famously, two of its men, Henry Johnson and Neadom Roberts, were celebrated as heroes for fighting off a German raiding party despite being outnumbered and suffering serious injuries. The regiment spent 191 days at the front, more than any other American unit. It never gave up a prisoner or a foot of ground.

When the regiment returned to the American lines, however, its soldiers experienced their lowest moments of the war. Within minutes of the troops’ arrival at the French coastal city of Brest, a white American military-police officer cracked the skull of a black private "who had dared to interrupt the MP’s conversation to ask directions to the latrine," according to Harlem’s Rattlers. White MPs savagely harassed the black troops. Their message: The "niggers" had "gotten ideas over here in France," as Morrow summarizes it. "And we’re going to knock those ideas out of them before they go back to the States, because nothing is going to change."

Other black soldiers suffered as well. And the problems continued back home, where the hoped-for expansion of civil rights failed to materialize. That partly explains why scholars for years largely neglected the black experience in World War I. The era, Williams says, was seen as a "disillusioning moment" of racial retrenchment. As he writes, black soldiers returned home to "a wave of racial violence unmatched since the aftermath of the Civil War." At least 11 black veterans were lynched in 1919. Some 25 race riots flared up across the country. Black soldiers from the South were urged not to return home in military dress. Some were met at train stations by white mobs and forced to remove their uniforms.

Bettmann, CORBIS

A wounded black soldier views a 1919 parade of the 369th Regiment in New York City.

But recent studies by Williams and other scholars broaden the focus beyond those atrocities, tracing the legacy of World War I in black cultural and political life. The conflict influenced artists like Horace Pippin, a wounded veteran who became one of the most acclaimed African-American painters of the 20th century. It opened up new opportunities for the activism of black women. It was a catalyst for the postwar political mobilization and radicalism that came to be known as the New Negro movement.

Perhaps most concretely, it created a generation of leaders who carried the civil-rights struggle through World War II and beyond. Both Williams and Lentz-Smith devote attention to one of the most distinguished of those leaders, Charles Hamilton Houston. An Amherst College graduate who had taught English at Howard University, Houston joined 1,250 African-Americans who signed up for a controversial segregated officers’ training camp that opened in 1917 in Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Rather than a struggle against Germans, however, the war felt to Houston like a battle between black and white Americans, Lentz-Smith writes. Whites showered hatred on black officers, enforced segregation in living quarters, and nearly rioted over blacks’ flirting with French women.

Returning home, Houston was further scarred by a race riot that erupted in Washington in 1919. Race relations there had soured since the Virginia-born President Wilson had attempted to "transform the capital into a Jim Crow city," purging black civil-service employees and segregating federal departments, Williams writes. On July 18, hundreds of whites descended on a black neighborhood to avenge the reported attack on a white woman by black men. That triggered what Williams describes as "four days of racial warfare." Mobs of white marines and sailors "beat, stabbed, and shot black people at will." Blacks, including war veterans, responded by going on the offensive. They sped through the city in cars, Williams writes, "firing upon crowds of white people they identified as potential invaders."

By the time Houston began studying at Harvard Law School, Williams writes, those experiences had steeled his "sense of purpose and determination to fight for racial justice." He became the architect of the NAACP’s strategy to dismantle segregation through litigation. At Howard Law School, where he rose to become dean, he mentored a generation of black lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall.

In preparing for the Second World War, Lentz-Smith says, activists like Houston drew a clear lesson from the first: You don’t do your duty and hope for a reward. Instead, "you make your demand. You strike your bargain. And then you go fight."

One powerful example, recounted in her book, is the story of A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement. Randolph, who got his political education during the World War I period, had edited a socialist magazine and established the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As World War II neared, he planned to mobilize a march on Washington to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to open up defense-industry jobs. In June 1941, faced with the prospect of perhaps 100,000 protesters swarming the capital, Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in defense jobs. Randolph called off the protest and pledged black loyalty in the event of war.

When more than 200,000 demonstrators did march on Washington, in the summer of 1963, their protest drew inspiration from that campaign. And Randolph helped organize it.

Marc Parry is a staff reporter at The Chronicle.