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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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.