The African American Experience
When the United States entered World War I, African Americans were struggling against the nation’s color line. Laws and practices of racial segregation undermined their citizenship rights and opportunities. However, they refused to allow these barriers to compromise their patriotism.
Eager to advance democracy at home and overseas, African Americans sought active participation in World War I. As soon as the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917, thousands of African American men rushed to recruitment stations to volunteer as soldiers. The War Department, however, imposed quotas on their enlistment, although African Americans had served in military conflicts since our nation’s colonial era. While representing about 10% of the nation’s population, African Americans comprised 13% of the nation’s soldiers on active duty during World War I. By the end of the war, about 400,000 African American soldiers had participated, including 200,000 who were deployed overseas. Yet, the established and most experienced African American regiments, the 9th and 10th Calvary and the 24th and 25th Infantry, were assigned to the Far West in the United States and the Philippines.
Due to the color line, most of these World War I soldiers served in the U.S. Army’s segregated 92nd and 93rd combat divisions. The majority of those who were in the Army’s officer corps received their training at the Colored Officers Training Camp at Fort Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa. For their bravery on the battlefield, they received praise and medals from the French and American commanders. The French Government awarded individual African American soldiers and units their highest honor for gallantry, the Croix de Guerre. The only African American recommended by the United States government for the Congressional Medal of Honor was Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry. In 1991, he was awarded our nation’s highest honor posthumously by President George H. W. Bush.
African American women joined the nation’s war effort too. Although excluded from serving in the military, fourteen African American women were accepted into the Navy Department as “yeowomen”. The women who comprised the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses immediately volunteered to enroll in the American Red Cross Nursing Service, but were rejected until after the Armistice, when 18 were accepted into the Army Nurse Corps. Most of these health workers, however, organized themselves into the Blue Circle Nurses who were recruited to work in local African American communities during the War. Others served in the American Red Cross at six base hospitals where African American soldiers were stationed, which included Camp Funston in Kansas. They also worked in the YWCA and other
organizations to provide canteens and material resources for the troops. In addition, they mobilized African American community support for the war through fundraising. For the nation’s Third Liberty Loan Drive, the National Association of Colored Women donated more than 5 million dollars.
When the war ended, African Americans expressed hope and high expectations for the fulfillment of democracy at home. As W.E.B. Dubois wrote in the Crisis:
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.”
Archivist for African American Collections,
Kansas Collection, Spencer Research Library
University of Kansas Libraries