Jim Crow in American armed forces during WWI

By 1915, the system of laws known as Jim Crow had completely eradicated all semblances of civil rights that black men and women had gained during the Reconstruction era.

Throughout the south, the concept of “separate but equal,” the law of the land as promulgated by the US Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in 1896, created a system of apartheid that would last well into the 1960′s. Things were truly separate; blacks could no longer eat in certain restaurants (but could serve as waiters in many) and were forced to use separate bathrooms, drink from separate water fountains and sit in segregated sections at public theaters and stadiums. President Woodrow Wilson, a southerner elected in 1912, soon ordered that the federal government no longer hire blacks for government positions.

That Wilson would take such a strongly segregationist viewpoint regarding government employment is of little surprise; Wilson, a history professor by trade, only helped fuel false narratives when in 1915, he stated that “It is like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” after watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie “Birth of a Nation,” a film that depicted Reconstruction as bad and glorified the Ku Klux Klan as chivalrous knights who defended white women from rapes by black men.

In 1914, during Wilson’s second year in office, World War I broke out in Europe and Wilson, true to his pledge, kept the US neutral. By 1917, however, the United States had entered the war on the side of the Allies and Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, much as Frederick Douglass had during the Civil War, encouraged blacks to exhibit patriotism and to sign up for the war effort. At the outset of American entry into the war, Dubois wrote:

We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder without our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly without eyes lifted to the hills.”

(Dubois in his office in Harkness Hall on the campus of Atlanta University)

A. Phillip Randolph, the noted civil rights leader who founded “The Messenger” newspaper with Chandler Owen, took a different view by arguing in an editorial that blacks should not fight for America because “Patriotism has no appeal for us; justice has.” Another black newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, echoed a similar sentiment in an anti-war editorial, averring “Let us have a real democracy for the United States and then we can advise a house cleansing over on the other side of the water.”

While Dubois would later come to regret his support, as noted below, 2.3 million blacks registered for the draft and while none served in the Marines and only few in the Navy, the majority of black service members did enlist in the United States Army. Dubois was influential in President Wilson’s decision to set up an officers training camp in Iowa that helped lead to 639 black men being commissioned as officers, although none would rise above the rank of captain, to Dubois’ chagrin.

The Army divided the segregated black units into two divisions, the 92nd and the 93rd. Most of the black soldiers ultimately deployed to France served in support units or were assigned to commit back-breaking work such as digging trenches, laying barbed wire and digging latrines. General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, went as far as writing in a communique that as for black soldiers, that “we must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans.”

Despite the overt racial hostility as exhibited by General Pershing, one that filtered down to his subordinate white officers, some black units did fight on behalf of America. Among those who fought gallantly was the 369th Infantry Regiment from Harlem New, York, a unit that earned the nickname “Harlem Hell Fighters” from German soldiers impressed by their bravery and heroism. Like most black fighting units, the 369th, also known as the “Black Rattlesnakes” for the insignia on their uniforms, were attached to French units due to the reticence of white American officers to fight alongside blacks. The Hell Fighters wore French helmets, were armed with French munitions and were often integrated with French units. France’s military hierarchy chose to ignore a communique provided by the American Expeditionary Forces headquarters seeking to highlight alleged cowardice and “rapist” tendencies of black soldiers. After the horrific Meuse-Argonne campaign of 1918, five black officers of the 92nd Division were court-martialed with one white major testifying that “without my presence…I am absolutely positive that not a single colored officer would have advanced with his men. The cowardice shown by the men was abject.”

The record evidence, however, proved notions of cowardice by black soldiers to be nothing short of racist aspersions; by war’s end in November of 1918, the Harlem Hell Fighters had received the French “Croix De Guerre,” its highest honor, for gallantry in the Second Battle of the Marne and other offensives. In addition to its fighting prowess, the unit was lauded for its regimental band, led by Lieutenants James Europe and Noble Sissle, the latter of which would become a famous writer and lyricist who co-wrote one of the first black Broadway hits, “Shuffle Along.”

The Harlem Hell Fighters returned from Europe to widespread acclaim, including a large parade in New York City in February of 1919 that was attended by Governor Al Smith and William Randolph Hearst, among other white dignitaries. The Chicago Defender, the popular black newspaper founded by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, estimated the crowds at 2 million despite the New York Times estimation in the hundreds of thousands. Still, the adoring crowds soon gave way to reality that the blood that blacks shed on behalf of America inured no benefits at home. Within a year of war’s end, white mobs had instigated riots across America in South Carolina, Arkansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois and Washington DC, riots that left hundreds of blacks dead–including a number of black veterans who were lynched in their uniforms. This sad reality compelled Dr. WEB Dubois to pen a forceful rebuke in The Crisis that ran counter to his earlier support for the war effort. Wrote Dubois:

“We are returning from war! The Crisis and tens of thousands of black men were drafted into a great struggle. For bleeding France and what she means and has meant and will mean to us and humanity and against the threat of German race arrogance, we fought gladly and to the last drop of blood; for America and her highest ideals, we fought in far-off hope; for the dominant southern oligarchy entrenched in Washington, we fought in bitter resignation. For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult—for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight also. But today we return! We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.”

Lest we forget…