African Americans played an heroic role in WWI

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

Black troops fought valiantly in WWI, despite the War Department dropping thousands of leaflets in the French countryside warning women not to fraternize with African American soldiers in informing them of the low social status and level of antipathy held against these men in America. In largely ignoring the staunch segregationist policies of President Woodrow Wilson in consigning Black soldiers to largely non-combat roles such as stevedores and quartermaster corps, Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing did deploy Black soldiers in combat, based largely on his roots as an officer overseeing Black troops in the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers).

Countless African American women stepped forward in strong support of the war effort. While these women were not allowed to serve in Europe, they found varied and successful ways to serve stateside: nurses, ambulance drivers, Navy Yeomen, canteen workers, club administrators, office workers, railroad workers, munitions workers, and as extremely successful fund-raisers with a variety of government organizations and departments, relief organizations, and war industries. African American poet and civil rights advocate, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, was recognized for her mobilization for the Council of National Defense.

Cpl. Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry, in a show of honorable bravery and determination, led his men during an assault after senior officers were killed to take two German trenches, saving the lives of his comrades and giving his life in the process. For his courage, his commanding officer recommended him for the Medal of Honor. Many patriotic acts of sacrifice occurred during the First World War, yet prejudicial descriptions of action or “misplaced paperwork”, like that of Cpl. Stowers, who received his award in 1991, downplayed African American service.

This past discrimination continues to inform our present public memory. In the Allied Victory parade in Paris, France in 1919, African Americans were specifically excluded by high command, which distorts analysis of history through photographic evidence. This factor of institutional racism presents a significant challenge to historians looking to accurately study our history, making it all the more important to engage and support students and historians endeavoring to bring this to light

Americans took a stand for democracy in 1917, whether in battlefield heroism or homefront sacrifice. Their participation created a geo-political shift around the world, still felt today, that buoyed the United States’ economic, political and military power on the global stage. Many leaders during the war left an ambiguous legacy: President Wilson’s vision propelled U.S. to a century of global leadership, affirming its democratic values. In the process, he made choices that failed to honor those values in all his fellow Americans, cementing some of the greatest problems our nation faced in decades to come. Gen. Pershing proudly led our soldiers to victory, while at the same time actively undermined the men who risked their lives to follow him and serve their country.

The success and service of Black Americans in WWI challenged the doctrine of White supremacy, spewing new battles on the homefront. In the summer of 1919, known as the “Red Summer,” the nation faced one of its most extreme periods of interracial violence. Eleven African-American soldiers who had served their country in a time of war were lynched in their uniforms that summer. W.E.B DuBois, with essential patriotism, sounded a call as the war for equal rights continued:

“For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disenfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult--for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight. We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”

The “War to End All Wars” was, in fact, the beginning of countless others. African American involvement in this war did not end racial subjugation or segregation. But the act of putting a uniform on itself was, for some, an act of defiance, and for others, an act of unity and equality. That participation marked the beginning of a modern civil rights movement, a fight to define the true meaning of democracy.

Lora Vogt is the education curator for the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO,