Fighting for Respect: Black Soldiers in World War I

The Harlem Hellfighters are seen here at Séchault, France, on Sept. 29, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
The Harlem Hellfighters are seen here at Séchault, France, on Sept. 29, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. (U.S. Army image)

As the people of the United States watched World War I ignite across Europe, Black citizens saw an opportunity to win the respect of their white neighbors. America was a segregated society, and Blacks were considered, at best, second-class citizens. Yet despite that, there were many Black men willing to serve in the nation's military, but even as it became apparent that the United States would enter the war in Europe, Blacks were still being turned away from military service.

When the United States declared war against Germany in April 1917, War Department planners quickly realized that the standing Army of 126,000 men would not be enough to ensure victory overseas. The standard volunteer system proved to be inadequate in raising an Army, so on May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act that required all male citizens between ages 21-31 to register for the draft.

Even before the act was passed, Black males from all over the country eagerly joined the war effort. They viewed the conflict as an opportunity to prove their loyalty, patriotism and worthiness for equal treatment in the United States.

After the Civil War, the Army disbanded volunteer "colored" regiments and established six Regular Army regiments of Black troops with white officers. In 1869, the infantry regiments were reorganized into the 24th and 25th Infantry. The two cavalry regiments, the 9th and 10th, were retained. These regiments were posted in the West and Southwest where they were heavily engaged in the Indian War. During the Spanish-American War, all four regiments saw service.

When World War I broke out, there were four all-Black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. The men in these units were considered heroes in their communities. Within one week of President Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war, the War Department stopped accepting Black volunteers, because the quotas for Blacks were filled.

When it came to the draft, however, there was a reversal in usual discriminatory policy. Draft boards were comprised entirely of white men. Although there were no specific segregation provisions outlined in the draft legislation, Blacks were told to tear off one corner of their registration cards so they could easily be identified and inducted separately.

Now instead of turning Blacks away, the draft boards were doing all they could to bring them into service, southern draft boards in particular. One Georgia county exemption board discharged 44% of white registrants on physical grounds and exempted only 3% of Black registrants based on the same requirements.

It was fairly common for southern postal workers to withhold the registration cards of eligible Black men deliberately and have them arrested for being draft dodgers. Black men who owned their own farms and had families were often drafted before single white employees of large planters. Although comprising just 10% of the entire United States population, Blacks supplied 13% of inductees.

While still discriminatory, the Army was far more progressive in race relations than the other branches of the military. Blacks could not serve in the Marines, and could only serve limited and menial positions in the Navy and the Coast Guard. By the end of World War I, Blacks served in cavalry, infantry, signal, medical, engineer and artillery units, as well as serving as chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists and intelligence officers.

Although technically eligible for many positions in the Army, very few Blacks got the opportunity to serve in combat units. Most were limited to labor battalions. The combat elements of the U.S. Army were kept completely segregated. The four established all-Black Regular Army regiments were not used in overseas combat roles but instead were diffused throughout American-held territory. There was such a backlash from the Black community, however, that the War Department finally created the 92d and 93d Divisions, both primarily Black combat units, in 1917.

With the creation of Black units also came the demand for Black officers. The War Department thought the soldiers would be more likely to follow men of their own color, thereby reducing the risk of any sort of uprising. Most leaders of the Black community agreed, and it was decided that the Army would create a segregated, but supposedly equal, officer training camp. In May 1917, Fort Des Moines opened its doors to Black officer-trainees. Approximately 1,250 men attended the camp in Des Moines, Iowa.

Two hundred fifty of those men were already noncommissioned officers, and the rest were civilians. The average man attending the camp only had to have a high school education, and only 12% scored above average in the classification tests given by the Army.

Run by then-Lt. Col. Charles C. Ballou, the fort's staff of 12 West Point graduates and a few noncommissioned officers from the four original all-Black regiments put the candidates through a rigorous training routine. They practiced drilling with and without arms, signaling, physical training, memorizing the organization of the regiment, reading maps and training on the rifle and bayonet.

However, as Ballou noted after the war, the men doing the training did not take the job very seriously, and they seemed to consider the school -- and the candidates -- a waste of time. Consequently, the War Department determined that the instruction at Fort Des Moines was poor and inadequate. Also adding to the poor training was the fact that no one knew exactly what to expect in France, so it was difficult to train as precisely as was needed.

On Oct. 15, 1917, 639 Black men received their commissions as either captain or first or second lieutenant, and were assigned to infantry, artillery and engineer units with the 92d Division. This was to be the first and only class to graduate from Fort Des Moines; the War Department shut it down soon after their departure. Future Black candidates attended either special training camps in Puerto Rico (from which 433 officers graduated), the Philippines, Hawaii and Panama, or regular officer training facilities in the United States .

The Army had no written policy about what to do if an officer training camp became integrated, so each camp was allowed to decide for itself the manner in which the integration was executed. Some were completely segregated and others allowed for Blacks and whites to train together. More than 700 additional Black officers graduated from these camps, bringing the total number to 1,353.

Although Blacks were earning higher positions in the Army, that did not necessarily mean they were getting equal treatment. Black draftees were treated with extreme hostility when they arrived for training. White men refused to salute Black officers, and Black officers were often barred from the officer's clubs and quarters. The War Department rarely interceded, and discrimination was usually overlooked or sometimes condoned. Because many southern civilians protested having Blacks from other states inhabit nearby training camps, the War Department stipulated that no more than one-fourth of the trainees in any Army camp in the U.S. could be Black.

Even when integrated into fairly progressive camps, Black soldiers were often treated badly and sometimes went for long periods without proper clothing. There were also reports of Blacks receiving old Civil War uniforms and being forced to sleep outside in pitched tents instead of warmer, sturdier barracks. Some were forced to eat outside in the winter months, while others went without a change of clothes for months at a time. Not all Black soldiers suffered treatment like this, however, as those who were lucky enough to train at newly erected National Army cantonments lived in comfortable barracks and had sanitary latrines, hot food and plenty of clothes.

The first Black troops sent overseas belonged to service units. Because the work that these units did was absolutely invaluable to the war effort, commanders promised special privileges in return for high-yield results. With such motivation, the soldiers would often work for 24 hours straight, unloading ships and transporting men and materiel to and from various bases, ports and railroad depots.

As the war continued and soldiers took to the battlefields, Black labor units became responsible for digging trenches, removing unexploded shells from fields, clearing disabled equipment and barbed wire, and burying soldiers killed in action. Despite all the hard and essential work they provided, Black stevedores received the worst treatment of all Black troops serving in World War I.

Although not nearly as respected as any of the white soldiers involved in the war effort, Black combat troops, in many respects, were much better off than the laborers. The two combat divisions -- the 92d and 93d Divisions -- had two completely different experiences while fighting the Great War.

The 92d Division was created in October 1917 and put under the command of Brig. Gen. Charles C. Ballou, who had organized the first Black officer candidate school. Organized in a manner similar to the other American divisions, the 92d was made up of four infantry regiments, three field artillery regiments, a trench mortar battery, three machine gun battalions, a signal battalion, an engineer regiment, an engineer train and various support units.

Although in no case did a Black officer command a white officer, most of the officers (up to the rank of first lieutenant) in the unit were African American. Unlike just about every other American unit training to go into battle, soldiers from the 92d were forced to train separately while in the United States. The War Department, fearing racial uprisings, was willing to sacrifice the unit's ability to develop cohesion and pride. The lack of a strong bond between the men was one of the factors that led to the unit's poor performance in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.

The personal animosity between Lt. Gen. Robert Bullard, commander of the American Second Army, and Ballou was another problem. Bullard was not only a staunch racist, but he also had a rivalry going with Ballou. In order to make Ballou and the Black soldiers appear completely incompetent, Bullard spread misinformation about the successes and failures of the 92d.

Even Col. Allen J. Greer, Ballou's chief of staff, was in on the plan to sabotage the reputation of his Black unit and helped put a negative twist on stories from the front lines. Regardless of how well the 92d Division actually did on the battlefield, it was virtually impossible to overcome the slander from prejudiced officers.

After some initial successes in Lorraine in mid-August, on Sept. 20, 1918, the 92d was ordered to proceed to the Argonne Forest in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The division reached the front lines just before the first assault. The 368th Infantry Regiment immediately received orders to fill a gap between the American 77th Division and the French 37th Division. However, due to its lack of training with the French, shortages of equipment and unfamiliarity with the terrain, the regiment did not successfully complete this important assignment. The failure to accomplish this crucial mission blemished the 92d's combat record, and it was often used by military authorities for more than 30 years to prove the inadequacy of Black soldiers in combat.

After the disaster in the Argonne, the entire division was sent to a relatively quiet area of the front in the Marbache sector. Its primary mission was nevertheless a dangerous one: harass the enemy with frequent patrols. The danger of the assignment was reflected in the 462 casualties sustained in just the first month of patrolling. Although American commanders were dissatisfied with the unit's performance, the French obviously had a different opinion; they decorated members of the 365th Infantry and 350th Machine Gun Battalion for their aggressiveness and bravery.

By late 1918, the German Army was in full retreat, and the Allied commander in chief, Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, wanted to apply heavy pressure for a decisive breakthrough and defeat. The 92d was ordered to take the heights east of Champney, France, on Nov. 10, 1918. Although only lasting one day, the attack was fierce and bloody, costing the division more than 500 casualties.

As the 92d Division struggled to clear its reputation, the 93d Division had a much more successful experience. Commanded by Brig. Gen. Roy Hoffman, the 93d Division was also organized in December 1917. Unlike other American infantry divisions, the 93d was limited to four infantry regiments, three of which were comprised of National Guard units from New York, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia and Tennessee. Being made up of mostly draftees and National Guardsmen, the 93d lacked any sort of consistency in its experience or composition. The unit also lacked its full number of combat units and support elements, and as a result never attained full divisional strength. Seeming to have odds stacked against it, the 93d fared remarkably well when faced with battle.

National Archives

The situation was desperate in France, and with exhausted and dwindling armies, the French begged the United States for men. Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, promised them four American regiments. He gave them the regiments of the 93d Division since the French, who had used French colonial troops from Senegal, had experience in employing Black soldiers in combat.

The first African American combat troops to set foot on French soil belonged to the 93d Division. Armed, organized and equipped as a French unit, the 93d quickly adjusted to its new assignment. Although experiencing some difficulties like language problems, the Black soldiers were treated as equals.

The 369th Infantry was the first regiment of the 93d Division to reach France. It arrived in the port city of Brest in December 1917. On March 10, after three months of duty with the Services of Supply, the 369th received orders to join the French 16th Division in Givry-en-Argonne for additional training. After three weeks, the regiment was sent to the front lines in a region just west of the Argonne Forest. For nearly a month, they held their position against German assaults, and after only a brief break from the front, the 369th was placed once again in the middle of the German offensive, this time at Minacourt, France. From July 18 to Aug. 6, 1918, the 369th Infantry, now proudly nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters," proved its tenacity once again by helping the French 161st Division drive the Germans from their trenches during the Aisne-Marne counteroffensive.

In this three-week period, the Germans were making many small night raids into Allied territory. During one of these raids, a member of the 369th Infantry, Cpl. Henry Johnson, fought off an entire German raiding party, using only a pistol and a knife. Killing four of the Germans and wounding many more, his actions allowed a wounded comrade to escape capture and led to the seizure of a stockpile of German arms. Johnson and his comrade were wounded, and both received the French Croix de Guerre for their gallantry. Johnson was also promoted to sergeant.

From Sept. 26 to Oct. 5, the 369th participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and continued to fight well throughout the remainder of the war. The regiment fought in the front lines for a total of 191 days, five days longer than any other regiment in the AEF. France awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre, along with presenting 171 individual awards for exceptional gallantry in action.

Although the 369th won much of the glory for the 93d Division, the 370th, 371st, and 372d Regiments, each assigned to different French divisions, also proved themselves worthy of acclaim at the front. The 370th fought hard in both the Meuse-Argonne and Oise-Aisne campaigns. Seventy-one members of the regiment received the French Croix de Guerre, and another 21 soldiers received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Company C, 371st Infantry, earned the Croix de Guerre with Palm.

The 371st Regiment spent more than three months on the front lines in the Verdun area, and for its extraordinary service in the Champagne offensive, the entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. In addition, three of the 371st's officers were awarded the French Legion of Honor, 123 men won the Croix de Guerre, and 26 earned the DSC.

The 372d Infantry also performed admirably during the American assault in Champagne, and afterward assisted in the capture of Monthois. It was there the regiment faced strong resistance and numerous counterattacks, resulting in many instances of hand-to-hand combat. In less than two weeks of front-line service, the 372d suffered 600 casualties. The regiment earned a unit Croix de Guerre with Palm, and in addition, 43 officers, 14 noncommissioned officers and 116 privates received either the Croix de Guerre or the DSC.

On Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., the armistice between the Allies and Central Powers went into effect. Like all other American soldiers, the Black troops reveled in celebration and took justifiable pride in the great victory they helped achieve. It was not without great cost: The 92d Division suffered 1,647 battle casualties, and the 93d Division suffered 3,534.

Expecting to come home heroes, Black soldiers received a rude awakening upon their return. Back home, many whites feared that Blacks would return demanding equality and would try to attain it by employing their military training. As the troops returned, there was an increase of racial tension. During the summer and fall of 1919, anti-Black race riots erupted in 26 cities across America. The lynching of blacks also increased from 58 in 1918 to 77 in 1919.

At least 10 of those victims were war veterans, and some were lynched while in uniform. Despite this treatment, Black men continued to enlist in the military, including veterans of World War I who came home to such violence and ingratitude. They served their county in the brief period of peace after World War I, and many went on to fight in World War II.

It was not until 1948 that President Harry S Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the military, although it took the Korean War to fully integrate the Army. Blacks finally began to receive the equal treatment their predecessors had earned in combat in France during World War I, and as far back as the American Revolution.

For more reading on African American soldiers in WWI, please see: The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in WWI; by Arthur E. Barbeau & Florette Henri, The Right to Fight: A History of African-Americans in the Military, by Gerald Astor; and Soldiers of Freedom, by Kai Wright.

The Army Historical Foundation establishes, assists and promotes programs and projects that preserve the history of the American soldier and promote public understanding of and appreciation for the contributions by all components of the U.S. Army and its members. The foundation serves as the Army's official fundraising entity for the Capital Campaign for the National Museum of the United States Army. The museum will be constructed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to honor the service and sacrifice of all American soldiers who have served since the Army's inception in 1775.  For more information about the foundation, the National Museum of the United States Army, and the Registry of the American Soldier, visit

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