They were among the fiercest American soldiers in WWI. Here’s why they were horribly mistreated when they returned home
A sweeping new exhibit chronicles how African-American involvement in WWI helped pave the way for the civil rights movement.
Trench foot, mustard gas, snipers and giant rats make it difficult to imagine a single day on the Western Front in World War I, let alone 191 days. But that’s exactly how long the men of the 369th Infantry regiment spent on the front lines — more than any other American unit in the war.
Along the way they also suffered more casualties than any other American unit, and earned a rainbow of awards, including the French Croix de Guerre, multiple Distinguished Service Crosses, and, eventually, a Medal of Honor.
You’d think all this would have earned the surviving members of the 369th a hero’s welcome when they came home in 1918. Instead, after a few initial parades, they endured protests and mob violence, and all for one simple reason: they were black.
The story of the 369th, also known as The Harlem Hellfighters, and of the larger African-American experience in WWI, is the subject of an exhibit called “We Return Fighting,” which is currently on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D.C.
Though black soldiers faced discrimination both at home and abroad, the exhibit chronicles how WWI helped form a new African-American identity that helped pave the way for the civil rights movement of the post-World War II era.
“These young black soldiers returned to an atmosphere in which they and others could vow that they were going to change the United States to accept them as equals, however long the struggle took,” said John Morrow Jr., a history professor at the University of Georgia who helped put together the exhibit, during a press preview on Dec. 12.
The struggle began before the soldiers even left for Europe. This was still the era of Jim Crow segregation, and many African-Americans were hesitant about answering President Woodrow Wilson’s call to make the world safe for democracy.
“I did not feel justified in going into the service to fight for so called democracy which I could not myself enjoy as an American citizen,” said Sgt. Herbert White of the 154th Depot Brigade in 1920, according to a panel in the exhibit.
Still, 400,000 African-Americans served anyway, some with the hope that making the world safe for democracy also meant providing safety and democracy for themselves and their communities. But many white Americans were opposed to training large groups of black men how to fight.
“Some of the whites feared that black men trained to arms would rebel against segregation,” Morrow said.
Only about 200,000 African-American soldiers were sent overseas, Morrow explained, and about 80 percent of those worked in Service of Supply operations such as labor battalions, engineer battalions, pioneer infantry regiments and Graves Registration units, according to the exhibit. Only 42,000 black troops served in combat units: the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions.
Fighting with the French
Soon after it arrived in Europe, the 93rd Division was handed off to the war-weary French army. Thus, African-American soldiers found themselves thousands of miles from home, wearing French helmets, obeying French commanders and firing French rifles at the enemy.
For many black troops it was a welcome change. While France historically had large holdings of slaves in its colonies overseas, it never practiced slavery in Europe at the scale Americans did in the South, explained Krewasky Salter, a retired Army colonel and historian who led the curation of the exhibit. Thus, the French in Europe lacked the historical proximity of racism so enmeshed in American culture.
“Most French people who never left France, especially those in the countryside, had never seen a black person,” Salter told Task & Purpose. “There was not the level of racism on the continent in France like there was in the U.S. because there was not this history of slavery in the country of France and the black population in France was minute compared to America.”
Mark Thompson, the moderator of the exhibit press preview in December and the host of the radio show Make it Plain, recalled listening to his grandfather, a WWI veteran, speak fluent French even while he was losing his short-term memory in a nursing home.
“He had no idea what he was saying but I’m sure there were some fascinating stories embedded somewhere in that French,” Thompson said.
While the French welcomed black soldiers, most African-Americans who tried to serve were met with hostility in the U.S. For example, 1,800 registered African American nurses were prevented from shipping out to Europe, explained Lisa Budreau, senior curator of military history for the Tennessee State Museum, who also helped put together the exhibit.
“1,800 nurses is a lot of women to be of service during a time when nursing was such a necessity,” she told reporters in December.
Only three of those nurses made it to Europe, Budreau said. Fortunately for historians, two of those women, Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson, wrote down their observations of the mistreatment of African-American soldiers.
“They did not receive medical care at the dispensary, they were unable to buy food,” said Budreau. “It’s a scathing report of how things actually panned out overseas.”
In some cases, the American military treated the enemy better than its own black soldiers. According to the book Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality by the historian Richard Slotkin:
“White officers gave [African American troops] the filthiest and most dangerous assignments; the YMCA saved their candy and cigarettes for Whites; White nurses treated Germans before wounded Black doughboys. White staff officers told the French the Negroes would rape and murder their women … ‘[The] Hell Fighters might as well have been fighting the AEF [American Expeditionary Force] for all the support they received from it.”
The poor treatment dampened the fighting spirit of many soldiers. The 92nd Infantry Division, which served with the AEF, was marked by dysfunction and failure. But the 93rd, while serving with the French, achieved great battlefield success.
On one occasion, the 93rd’s then-Pvt. Henry Johnson won fame and glory when he and his comrade Pvt. Needham Roberts fended off a dozen Germans with their rifles, knives and bare hands, an effort for which Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015.
Another 369th soldier, Cpl. Lawrence McVey, received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart when he was wounded while leading an assault on a machine gun nest. Later in the war, the Harlem Hellfighters withstood a German onslaught at the Second Battle of the Marne, then attacked German lines as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
“My men never retire. They go forward or they die,” Col. William Hayward, the white commander of the 369th, is believed to have said, according to the exhibit.
Salter said the respect that French troops showed towards the 93rd division played a role in the 93rd's success.“If you treat someone with respect as a person, they’re going to respond better,” he said. “That’s with any walk of life, and I believe that to be true with the 93rd Division.”
The Red Summer
The war ended in November 1918, but the achievements of the 93rd Division and hundreds of thousands of other African-American soldiers could not overcome generations of racism that still pulsed through many white Americans. In fact, they may have only aggravated it.
The period from April to November 1919 is known to historians as the Red Summer, a time when the nation erupted in deadly protests and riots fueled not only by racial tension, but also by labor protests and high unemployment amid a post-war economic downturn.
In the chaos, 53 African Americans were lynched, including 12 WWI veterans.
“Many, not all, but many white Americans were not willing to let the status quo go after the war,” Salter said. “They didn’t go to war to make the world safe for democracy with African Americans in mind. So a lot of them expected that the America they left should be the same when they returned, which was the opposite of what African Americans expected.”
The result, Salter explained, was the powder keg that led to the Red Summer.
“This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return,” wrote African American intellectual leader and civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois in The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in May 1919, according to a panel in the exhibit. “This is the fatherland for which we fought!”
Du Bois was among the strongest advocates for black involvement in the war. In 1919, he was furious over how little fruit the effort had born, Salter said. But rather than be discouraged, Du Bois instead responded by doubling down on his resolve to become more than a second-class citizen in his own country. The remarkable part of the story is that the WWI experience led many other African Americans to respond the same way.
The WWI experience “led to a renewed sense of purpose and identity,” among many African Americans, Salter said. “Even African Americans at home who supported the war effort expected a change in treatment. They become a little more determined in 1919 to make that change happen, much more so than in 1917.”
In the Crisis, Du Bois wrote:
“But it is our fatherland. It was right for us to fight. The faults of our country are our faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to right a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land. We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”
The New Negro
One man who helped lead the fight was A. Philip Randolph, a labor organizer who went on to convince President Harry Truman to end segregation in the military in 1948.
After the war, Randoph became a key proponent of the New Negro, a spirit of confidence in which African-Americans could look upon their achievements and feel proud to be black. That pride enabled an aggressive pursuit of civil rights and of cultural expression, such as the Harlem Renaissance.
The New Negro “engaged in a new and completely different conversation that embraces our resilience, that embraces our determination … the whole spirit that allows black people to survive nearly three hundred years of terror,” said Curtis Young, an American literature professor at ESSEC Grandes Ecoles Paris, one of the top universities in France, at the exhibit preview in December.
Several men from the 93rd Division embodied the New Negro for their achievements on and off the battlefield. One of them was Horace Pippin, an iron foundry worker who became an infantryman and then an acclaimed painter. Pippin’s work now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and other galleries, including this exhibit.
Another example was James Reese Europe, who is widely credited with introducing jazz to France. An art form pioneered by African-Americans, jazz was the soundtrack of the New Negro, Slotkin wrote in his book.
“The idea that Blacks must prove their equality, which was the core of the social bargain [to go to war] in 1917, assumes that ‘White’ is the standard by which all things are measured. Inherent in Europe’s campaign for a Black music was the idea that the culture and appearance of Black people were beautiful in their own terms.”
Europe said so even more succinctly:“We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others,” he said, according to the exhibit.
War has strange ripple effects, and a world-consuming conflict such as WWI is no exception. Though it cost many lives, the war empowered African-Americans to “return fighting” and begin creating a new world for themselves at home.
“What the first world war unleashed … was a new age of the New Negro, of the Harlem Renaissance,” Murrow said. “And no amount of repression could crush it.”
The exhibit “We Return Fighting” closes on June 14, 2020. Details for visiting can be found on the NMAAHC website.