1917 - 1919

Make Way for Democracy!

National World War I Museum and Memorial

Taking a Stand for Democracy
Two score and ten years after one president used his power to expand liberty and opportunity for millions of Americans, President Woodrow Wilson cemented new barriers by segregating federal institutions. This 1913 policy of “post Civil War reconciliation” was a significant shift that restricted the lives and livelihoods of millions. One year later, a global war engulfed the world’s imperial powers. Staying on the sidelines until 1917, the United States had to then mobilize all American citizens to the war efforts at home and abroad. The stand that African Americans took during the First World War to make, as Woodrow Wilson hoped, “the world safe for democracy,” presents a turning point in the effort to make democracy safe for all Americans.

American industry flourished when the world went to war in 1914.

Economic growth encouraged a migration of African Americans, many under increasing political and economic oppression of Jim Crow laws, from the South to Northern cities in one of America’s greatest internal demographic shifts and artistic booms.

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany.  
"The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. 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....."    On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the war.

Entry into the war transformed the United States. In urgent mobilization, the Selective Service Act of May 1917 included all males of fighting age, regardless of color or foreign birth.

We want you!
African Americans took up the burden of war for much the same reasons as their counterparts: honor, patriotism and for men, the American draft board.

For many within the African American community, the call to fight beneath the claim of “champions of the rights of mankind” rang hollow.

Many more approached the war as an opportunity to redefine their citizenship and improve social, political and economic conditions within the United States.

Sergeant Vernon Coffey, of Kansas City, Missouri, joined the 806th Pioneer Infantry at Fort Riley (Camp Funston), Kansas. He received overseas clothes and weapons at Camp Mills, New York where he shipped out for France. After attending gas school at Langras, France, he served at ammunition dumps at Flury and Lima.

Coffey would return to his home after the war. Coffey finished, as he related, his law studies and became an attorney and a preacher, later, at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Kansas.

Though African Americans made up only 10% of the U.S. population, 367,710 African Americans were drafted into the United States Army - 13% of the total United States Armed Services during the war.

The first African Americans in military service to be in combat zones were in the U.S. Navy and were among the service personnel landing the first troops of the American Expeditionary Forces in France.

Americans, all?
Though the American military reflected the diversity of its population, black servicemen were not treated equally. Nearly 80% of African American soldiers were organized into supply, construction or other non-combatant units. African American troops, both stateside and abroad, were still victims of racial discrimination from civilians and Army commanders.
Despite doubts of American officers in World War I, two predominantly African American combat divisions were formed: the 92nd Division, under U.S. command, and 93rd Division (comprised of four Infantry Regiments: 369th, 370th, 371st and 372nd), initially under French command.

The 369th Infantry Regiment, part of the 93rd Division, proved the capabilities of African American troops, serving the longest of any American combat troops in the trenches. It established an excellent reputation fighting under the French and earned such nicknames as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

Among its members, Sgt. Henry Johnson, was the first American recipient of the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. He was recently awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Private Needham Roberts, 369th Infantry, was the second recipient of the Croix de Guerre.

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. The performance of the 369th and other African American combat units informed the American military to reconsider its segregation practices in later years.

The U.S. Armed Forces was desegregated under WWI veteran, President Harry S Truman in 1948.

Women in Wartime
Countless African American women also stepped forward in strong support of the war effort.They found varied and successful ways to serve: 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.

“They [African American women] went into every kind of factory devoted to the production of war materials, from the most dangerous posts in munitions plants to the delicate sewing in aeroplane factories. Colored girls and colored women drove motor trucks, unloaded freight cars, dug ditches, packed boxes. The colored woman running the elevator or speeding a railroad on its way by signals was a common sight.”

~Alice Dunbar-Nelson, African American poet and civil rights advocate, recognized for her mobilization for the Council of National Defense

Global Stage
Many African American servicemen were noted musicians before the war and continued to provide entertainment overseas. Band leader James Reece Europe led the famous 369th Infantry Band.
Unifying Force
The uniform can be a powerful unifying force. Service and sacrifices of African Americans did not just impact the war effort in WWI; it impacted individual relationships and beliefs on race. Later military research would conclude that "shared combat experiences can change racial attitudes."
Americans all.
Americans, all, took a stand for democracy in 1917, whether in battlefield heroism or home frontsacrifice. 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. General 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 the War to End All Wars challenged the doctrine of white supremacy, bringing new battles to the home front. In the United States, there were 36 lynchings in 1917. In 1919, there were more than double, a number not since reached, even during the most difficult days of the Civil Rights movement. Known as the “Red Summer,” of the 76 lynchings in 1919, 11 of those were of soldiers in their uniforms.

In an article to The Crisis in May of 1919, 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 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.

This is your history.
Help us honor the service of the men and women in these photographs. Browse the following photographs, and others at http://ow.ly/WTHtc ; if you recognize any unidentified individuals in the nation's archive, please be in touch. The Museum staff would like to hear from you: research@theworldwar.org. Have your own stories and photos? The National WWI Museum and Memorial would like to hear about those too. 
National World War I Museum and Memorial
Credits: Story

Curator of Education: Lora Vogt
Senior Curator: Doran Cart
Registrar: Stacie Petersen
Archivist: Jonathan Casey

Made possible in part by the generous support of the William T. Kemper Foundation and the Regnier Family Foundation.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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