Make Way for Democracy!

The African American Experience in World War I

National WWI Museum and Memorial

National World War I Museum and Memorial

American sailors, World War INational WWI 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.

Forging large artillery shellsNational WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

American troop ships near Statue of Liberty, New York City (1917/1919)National WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

African American men at induction center, World War INational WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

American soldiers during World War INational WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Enlistment Record of Willie King, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Unidentified married couple., From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Unidentified U.S. infantrymen, WWI, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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2nd Platoon, Company L, 806th Pioneer RegimentNational WWI Museum and Memorial

American Soldiers, World War I (1917/1919)National WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Oral History: William Knox, 366th Ambulance Company, 92nd Division, AEF, 1980-05-23, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Interview recorded with William T. Knox in 1980.

Knox was a soldier who served with the 366th Ambulance Company, 92nd Division, American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.

Cpl Vernon C. Coffey and Virgil McNeal of Kansas City, MO., Vernon C. Coffey, 1918-11, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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African American Women's Corps driver, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Larthard Simms in his uniform, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Officers in the U.S. Army., From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Oral History: Robert Sweeney, 317th Sanitary Train, 92nd Division, AEF, 1980-05-23, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Interview recorded with Robert L. Sweeney in 1980. He served with the 317th Sanitary Train, 92nd Division, American Expeditionary Forces during the war.

Portrait of Vernon Coffey (1919) by Vernon C. CoffeyNational WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Educational Classes, World War I, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Gus Briggs, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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General John J. Pershing reviewing troops at Is-Sur-Tille. (1914/1918)National WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

African American mess attendants aboard the USS President Grant., From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Three unidentified soldiers in a field camp inside the U.S., From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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African American soldiers unload gasoline for transport in France (1918-11-30)National WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Labor Troop completing road repair work in muddy conditions., Keystone View Company, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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American shipyard in Bassens, France., 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Military poster promoting work of stevedores (1918)National WWI Museum and Memorial

African American soldiers serving as stevedores in Bassens, FranceNational WWI Museum and Memorial

Building of a Spillway Ditch at Camp Funston, 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Workers digging, World War I, 1917/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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African American AEF 369th infantry, 93rd divisionNational WWI Museum and Memorial

Combat

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.

92nd Division insignia, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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The American advance northwest of Verdun, World War I, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Insignia of the 369th regiment of the 93rd division of the United States Army. (1914/1918)National WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Croix De Guerre and Distinguished Service Cross Awards, 1917/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Funeral honors for a member of the 93rd Division. by Keystone View CompanyNational WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Red Cross nurses marching in New York City (1917/1918)National WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Women knittingNational WWI Museum and Memorial

African American Red Cross volunteers, 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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African American female volunteers, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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African American soldier overseas with two female ambulance drivers (1914/1918)National WWI Museum and Memorial

African American women, WWI era (1914/1918)National WWI Museum and Memorial

“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

Two American musicians, World War INational WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

James Reese Europe and 369th regiment band, 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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African American band performing a concert in France (1917/1919)National WWI Museum and Memorial

Sailors on deck of USS Malang in dress blues.National WWI Museum and Memorial

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."

Integrated baseball game viewed by American and French troopsNational WWI Museum and Memorial

Two unidentified cooks., 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Informal snapshot of U.S. doughboys, 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Salvation Army Giving Fresh Doughnuts, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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A group of soldiers, sailors, Red Cross, and YMCA workers. (1917/1919) by From the American Red Cross service of PFC Clarence A. Marlette and Florence S. Battershill, stenographer.National WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Wounded African American soldier (1914/1918)National WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

Troops en route to France by Keystone View CompanyNational WWI Museum and Memorial

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."

Noah BlakeNational WWI Museum and Memorial

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.

American sailor on deck (1917/1919)National WWI Museum and Memorial

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. 

Black and white photograph of an unidentified African American woman., 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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American infantrymen wearing overseas caps, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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US soldier wearing wristwatch in a tinted portrait., From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Two unidentified American soldiers, stateside, 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Tinted Portrait of a Soldier, World War I, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Nursing students during the World War, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Two African American soldiers, World War I, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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US soldier wering overseas cap and puttees, World War I, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Four American soldiers, World War I, 1914/1918, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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African American Women's Corps driver, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Integrated YMCA "Y-hut", From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Infantryman, WWI, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Two American musicians, World War I, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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Sailors on deck, USS Malang, From the collection of: National WWI Museum and Memorial
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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, the Regnier Family Foundation and the David T. Beals, III Charitable Trust.

https://theworldwar.org

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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