African American Soldiers in World War One

Deborah Savage, Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps from Library of Congress [U.S. Army Infantry troops, African American unit, marching northwest of Verdun, France, in World War I]
Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps from Library of Congress

World War One broke out in Europe in 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The United States remained officially neutral and stayed out of the war for several years. However, in 1917, Germany announced it was suspending an agreement not to attack Allied passenger and merchant ships. The United States officially entered the war.

African Americans eagerly signed up to fight for their country, as they had done in every conflict dating back to the American Revolution. Upon arriving in Europe, however, many African American soldiers found themselves in support roles, providing labor and materials to troops on the front. Notable exceptions were two regiments of African American soldiers assigned to the French Army: the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, and the 370th Infantry, given the nickname "Black Devils" by the Germans. These soldiers fought valiantly for the French in the Second Battle of the Marne and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Private Henry Johnson was the first Black soldier to be awarded the French war medal, the Croix de Guerre. Ultimately, over 170 Black soldiers were awarded the Croix de Guerre. One of these recipients was Eugene Bullard, the first African American military pilot to fly in combat and the only African American pilot in World War One. He flew for France, however. He was not allowed to fly to the United States. The official reason was that he did not meet the requirement of being a First Lieutenant.

The 369th Infantry Regiment also became famous for their Regimental Army Band, led by James Reese Europe. Europe was the first Black musician to conduct a Black orchestra on the stage of Carnegie Hall. The Band, which also recruited about a third of its musicians from Puerto Rico, is credited with introducing live jazz to France. Europe's regimental band performed all over France, playing for wounded soldiers, dignitaries, and French citizens.

Sadly, after the war ended, race riots broke out in numerous American cities during the 1919 "Red Summer." Many African American troops, all of them war heroes, were physically attacked while in uniform. While the veterans had been fighting abroad, the cultural landscape of the United States had shifted. Many Southern African Americans had moved to Northern states in order to avoid the Jim Crow laws and discrimination of the South. Their white neighbors did not always welcome them. As the African American veterans settled back in, the Black community found a shared identity and sense of pride and purpose. The returning veterans, who bravely fought for their country in Europe, were often met with racism and denied basic rights upon their return to the United States. Instead of reverting to their previous status, they defended themselves and their communities.

The United States military was not formally integrated until July 26, 1948, when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which stated: "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."

Further Reading

Book cover of Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War : the undaunted 369th Regiment & the African American quest for
Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War
Sammons, Jeffrey T.

Book cover of Torchbearers of democracy : African American soldiers in World War I era
Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in World War I Era
Williams, Chad L.

Book cover of Harlem's hell fighters : the African-American 369th Infantry in World War I
Harlem's Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I
Harris, Stephen L.

Book cover of We return fighting : World War I and the shaping of modern Black identity
We Return Fighting: World War I and the Shaping of Modern Black Identity

Book cover of Loyalty in time of trial : the African American experience in World War I
Loyalty in Time of Trial: The African American Experience in World War I
Mjagkij, Nina

Book cover of The Hellfighters of Harlem : African-American soldiers who fought for the right to fight for their c
The Hellfighters of Harlem
Harris, Bill

Book cover of The unknown soldiers ; Black American troops in World War I
The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I
Barbeau, Arthur E.

Book cover of Willing patriots : men of color in the First World War
Willing Patriots: Men of Color in the First World War
Dalessandro, Robert J.

book cover
From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York's Colored Volunteers
Little, Arthur W.

Book cover of All blood runs red : the legendary life of Eugene Bullard-- boxer, pilot, soldier, spy
All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard - Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy
Keith, Phil