African Americans in WWI

Since the establishment of the U.S. Army, African-Americans answered the call to duty in service of the defense of the nation in all of its wars in spite of racial prejudice. During the American Revolution, blacks and whites served together in several units throughout the duration of the war. After the war, however, integration in the military would not be seen until after 1945. Blacks were often segregated into separate units from their white counterparts. In many instances, these units were assigned menial tasks in support units and rarely saw combat. Those African-Americans that did see combat displayed great courage and bravery under fire, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War; the 369th Infantry “Harlem Hellfighters” in World War I, highlighted in the exhibit; and the 761st Tank Battalion in World War II. In spite of racial discrimination and segregation, African-Americans continued to serve with distinction and gallantry.

When the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies in order “to make the world safe for democracy,” over 380,000 African-Americans answered the call to serve. Of this number, approximately 200,000 black soldiers were deployed overseas to the Western Front. More than half of those who served overseas were assigned to labor and stevedore units. About 42,000 men were assigned to combat units. These units included the all-black 92d and 93d Divisions. Though intended for front-line duty, Army leaders were reluctant to use black units due to perceived inferiority and lack of fighting prowess compared to white Soldiers as well as the refusal of whites to serve alongside black units. As a result, four infantry regiments, including the 369th Infantry, were transferred to French forces, which welcomed African-American troops as equals due in part to France’s experience with utilizing African colonial troops as well as its immediate need for more troops at the front.

The 369th Infantry, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” for its courage and fighting prowess, is a prime example of the exemplary performance of black soldiers when given the opportunity. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive in late September 1918, the regiment, sustaining heavy losses, captured the crucial village of Séchault; at one point during the offensive, the 369th advanced faster than other French units in the same sector. As a result of its exemplary service, the 369th was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor. By the end of the war, 171 soldiers of the regiment were award the Legion of Honor or the Croix de Guerre. The 369th’s distinguished service in World War I helped to advance the quest for racial equality in America and eventual integration of the armed forces following World War II, with President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981, thirty years later in 1948.

The National Museum of the U.S. Army will chronicle the story of the African-American Soldiers throughout the Army’s 241-year history in each of the six Fighting for the Nation sub-galleries, the Army and Society Gallery, and the Soldiers’ Stories Gallery.