African Americans played an heroic role in WWI

Lora Vogt ow contributor | 2/14/2019, midnight

As the World War raged around them, the United States maintained a technical neutrality until April of 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson declared:

“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty…We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

Entry into the war transformed the United States. In 1914, the United States had a standing army of 120,000 – and now urgently needed to mobilize. The Selective Service Act of May 1917 did not exclude any male of fighting age based on color or foreign-birth. The War Department recognized it could not exclude any individual and that all workers regardless of color were recognized as being of great importance to the war effort.

This is evident by the heroism of Cpl. Benjamin J. Bowie who was drafted into the U.S. Army on Oct. 28, 1917. He served in combat with the 92nd Infantry Division, until he was killed by friendly fire on Sept. 11, 1918. Bowie was the first African American from Los Angeles killed in World War I. American Legion Post 228, 5115 S. Central Ave. in South Los Angeles—the first in California—is dedicated in his honor.

Yet, this was a nation roiling with racial injustice as Americans struggled to define citizenship in a country with laws creating “separate but equal” realities, White and Black. African Americans faced both subtle and overt attacks on their citizenship throughout the country, from horrific domestic terrorism to resegregation and new institutional barriers against housing, employment, and voting rights.

The blatant hypocrisy of this appeal was not lost on Black or White communities of that era. As author Chris Capozzola illustrated in his book "Uncle Sam Wants You" with a letter from Louis S. Apes to his Virginia Congressman, “If this is a White man’s country then this war is a White man’s burden…. the use of [African Americans in war] is an admission… that this is no longer a White man’s country but equally a Black and White man’s country.”

The reasons many African Americans took up the burden of war were the same reasons as their White and foreign-born counterparts: honor, patriotism and the American draft board. For others, the call to fight beneath the claim of “champions of the rights of mankind” rang hollow. Many more within the African American community approached the war as an opportunity to redefine their citizenship and improve social, political and economic conditions within the United States

Although African Americans made up only 10 percent of the United States population, African American servicemen made up 13 percent of the total United States Armed Services during the war.

In withstanding prejudice and reluctance, two predominantly African American combat divisions were formed in WWI. The 92nd Division, under U.S. command, and 93rd Division initially under French command. The 369th Infantry Regiment, part of the 93rd Division, exemplified the capabilities of African American troops, serving the longest of any American combat troops in the trenches and establishing an excellent reputation fighting under the French, earning such nicknames as the “Harlem Hell fighters.” Among the members, a total of 68 Croix de Guerre and 24 Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to men of the 93rd Division along with several unit commendations, making it one of the most decorated American units of the war. Clearly, the performance of the 369th and other African American combat units informed the American military to reconsider its segregation practices in later years.