Here and Away: African Americans, WWI, and Civil Rights

Florine Stettheimer , "New York City/Liberty, 1918" Whitney Museum of Art, Photo by Ryan Reft
WWI Dogtags Charles Hamilton Houston, Box 20, William LePries Houston Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
WWI Dogtags Charles Hamilton Houston, Box 20, William LePre Houston Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In 1925, General Robert Lee Bullard, Commander of the U.S.’s Second Army during WWI in Europe, retired and released a book of memoirs: Personalities and Reminiscences about the War. Bullard had enjoyed a fairly distinguished career in the military peaking during the Great War. Yet, like many of this day, he harbored prejudices; most notably his dismissive attitude toward African American soldiers. In his memoir, he described America’s black soldiers in WWI as cowards – “Couldn’t Make Negroes Fight says Bullard” read one New York Herald Tribune headline – inferior to white troops, and generally unsuited for service. “All this constructive equality I regarded as an injustice,” Bullard wrote.[1]

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agreed with Bullard’s assertions. The NAACP mounted a vigorous defense of black soldiers. The organization issued press releases emphasizing their valor and service and sent letters to dozens of newspapers – the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Baltimore American, the Los Angeles Examiner, the Chicago Tribune, and Washington Herald – along with others to the book’s publisher, Doubleday Page and Co., refuting Bullard’s claims.[2] Emmett J. Scott, who had served as special assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker from 1917–1919, also drafted opinion pieces and letters challenging Bullard’s assertions.[3]

Some whites even came to the defense of African American servicemen. Congressman Hamilton Fish took Bullard to task, arguing the general demonstrated “a degree of animus against” black soldiers unbecoming of an officer and at odds with the facts, calling the former commander’s opinions “unfair and unwarranted.” If the 92nd Division’s command proved so incompetent, pointed out Fish, why did Bullard, who was by then a Major General, not replace General Charles C. Ballou since he held ultimate authority over him and the division?[4]

Florine Stettheimer , "New York City/Liberty, 1918" Whitney Museum of Art, Photo by Ryan Reft
Florine Stettheimer , “New York City/Liberty, 1918” Whitney Museum of Art, Photo by Ryan Reft

The New York Herald Tribune, which had run an excerpt of his book in its June 9, 1925 edition, attempted to walk back Bullard’s comments, noting Bullard had also criticized the 92nd Division’s white commander – Ballou – as “incompetent” and that “it was not the personal courage of the Negro which was involved, but the unhappy consequences of confusing a major war with the intricacies of racial uplift.” The newspaper went on to lament how various groups from feminists to prohibitionists attempted to use the war for their own interests: “One of the major difficulties from first to last, with the American war effort was that it was turned into an effort at almost everything else … and the troops of the 92nd Division seem to have been among the innocent victims of that regrettable tendency.”[5]

Still, while Bullard used a controversial incident involving the 92nd Division at the Battle of Meuse-Argonne as his evidence, the truth is that he had long felt this way with no evidence at all. In his diaries years earlier, Bullard displayed contempt and disregard for African American servicemen. Regrettably, despite a distinguished history of service stretching back to the Civil War, a point Fish emphasized and even the Herald conceded, black soldiers struggled under the kind of racism expressed by Bullard. Though drafted at rates that exceeded whites, most of the 400,000 who entered the wartime military of 3.7 million did not serve in combat positions during the war, but rather served as laborers.[6] Even some of those who did actually see the battlefield, roughly 42,000, served under French officers.[7]

In recent years, writers like Charles Moskos, John Sibley Butler, and Beth Bailey have emphasized how the shift to the all volunteer military in 1973 led to increased numbers of African Americans in the armed services, far greater than their proportion of the population. Moskos and Butler, in particular, highlight how African Americans have shaped the military in important ways and found an institution where they can thrive perhaps more so than in a private sector still beset by institutional racism. Others, such as historian Maggi Morehouse, have explored how WWII impacted the lives of black soldiers, nurses, and other enlisted personnel not only during the conflict, but also in their respective political awakenings afterward.[8] During WWI, despite being generally deprived of combat positions and suffering from discrimination, blacks were conscripted at higher rates than their white counterparts. Whites at once denigrated African Americans as soldiers but demanded they enlist so to equally share the burden of citizenship.

While it marked the first time the United States conscripted a national army, WWI has received shorter shrift. Admittedly, the United States’s rapid involvement in the conflict and its quick conclusion help explain the public’s general ignorance about the war. Such unawareness has limited this discussion, yet as works by Adriane Lentz Smith, Jennifer D. Keene, Chris Cappazola, Margot Canaday and Robert Zieger have demonstrated, WWI played a critical role in shaping the military, the New Deal, and for our purposes today, the civil rights movement. Today, April 6th represents the 99th anniversary of America’s entrance into the war and with the ascension of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, why not look back at what WWI meant for many African Americans in terms of identity and civil rights before the centennial is upon us?

A Brief Thumbnail of African American Military Service 1866 – 1919

While blacks had served as soldiers in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, they did not do so as regulars. However, by 1866 Congress had authorized the enlistment of six segregated black regiments led by white officers. Soon, however, the government would reduce this number to four regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries.

John J. Pershing, Bullard’s boss and more importantly the head of the American Expedition Force (AEF), knew the 10th Calvary well. From 1892 to 1898 he served as its first lieutenant and generally championed their cause. “In the field and elsewhere they were reliable and courageous and the old 10th Cavalry … with which I served in Cuba, made an enviable record there,” he wrote years later. However, Pershing could hardly rise above the prejudice of the day. “Under capable white officers and with sufficient training Negro soldiers have always acquitted themselves creditably.” Pershing did not approve of black officers, yet under pressure from the NAACP and elsewhere an Officers Training Camp for African Americans would be established in Des Moines, Iowa. Still, he made no secret of his personal beliefs. “It would have been much wiser to have followed the long experience of our Regular Army and provided these colored units with selected white officers,” he wrote.[9]

Emmett J. Scott, "A History of Reserve Officer's Training Camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa", circa 1918, William LePries Houston Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Emmett J. Scott, “A History of Reserve Officer’s Training Camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa”, circa 1918, William LePre Houston Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Pershing worried about low education levels and a lack of experience plaguing potential black officers. Granted, due to segregation, Jim Crow and general racism, black education rates lagged behind whites. However, the fact is large swaths of white troops couldn’t read either. For example, military officials estimated that 21.5 percent of white troops could not read (some historians argue for rates as high as 30 percent) as compared to roughly 50 percent of their black counterparts. Southerners demonstrated the highest illiteracy rates among whites. “Sample testing classified 49.5 percent of South Carolina men as illiterate, compared to 16.6 percent of New York men (despite large numbers of alien soldiers in the region) and 14.2 percent of men from Minnesota,” writes historian Jennifer D. Keene.[10] Admittedly, proportional illiteracy among black soldiers exceeded that of their counterparts twofold, but considering the vast number of white troops serving in WWI, the actual number of white illiterates in the services dwarfed that of African Americans.

The competency of black officers, so often denigrated by whites during and after the war, was a canard, argued future civil rights leader and officer Charles Hamilton Houston. Sure, some African American officers failed to measure up, but this had been due in part because white officers “picked candidates not because they were good officer material but because they were subservient, docile, and generally ‘good Negroes’,” he wrote to NAACP President Walter White years later. Howard Long, who would go on to become the first African American to earn an Ed.D from Harvard’s School of Education, concurred. Training at the Des Moines OTC bordered on the “utterly useless”; the white-led military simply refused to truly in invest in meaningful instruction, yet sent black officers to France. Whites hardly recognized them as equals, Long reflected: “Field officers seemed far more concerned with reminding their Negro subordinates that they were Negroes than they were with having an effective unit.”[11]

Many white officers were nothing to brag about. Houston had served with plenty and found them wanting: “I served with white troops and white officers in France – with a Kentucky brigade, and I know how dumb some of their officers were.” The truth, he argued, was that the AEF had been “hastily” constructed: “mistakes and misfits were not distinguishable solely by race, creed, or color.” In the end, Houston believed the most accomplished black officers matched up quite well with their white counterparts: “Our best men, or to put it in figures, our first ten men I would put up against any other ten men from any battery in the camp on theory, practice or what not.”[12]

Stateside, though racism toward blacks hardly confined itself to southerners, it would be those from south of the Mason Dixon line who clung most tightly to racial hierarchies. Yet, southern congressman also demanded that Blacks be drafted in unsurprisingly blatant, racist language: “Negroes are permitted to stay at home and hang around the towns and steal, while the white boys are taken from the farms and sent into the Army,” argued Kentucky Congressman R.Y. Thomas. However, southern whites chafed at the idea of actual black regular army soldiers, thereby forcing black troops to serve in “assorted labor battalions, pioneer infantry units, salvage companies, and stevedore organizations.”[13] White troops refused to salute black officers, black soldiers would not be issued military uniforms in the South out of fear of offending local populations, and violence between white and black troops was not uncommon.[14] Still, as Keene notes, race relationships between soldiers did not simply mirror the prevalent racial tensions of civilian society but also evolved in response to pressures “specific to the military environment.” In other words, though the military favored whites and racism pervaded nearly every aspect of the institution, it also needed black labor and soldiers to fight the war, so in moments African Americans could exert a certain amount of leverage.

Paris Diary of Charles Hamilton Houston, 1919, William LePries Houston Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Paris Diary of Charles Hamilton Houston, 1919, William LePre Houston Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

African American Soldiers Abroad

Admittedly, as Adrienne Lentz Smith points out in her recent work, Freedom Fighters, France had its own racial issues. Their colonization of Africa hardly suggested ideas of social equality, yet African Americans service personnel found the French far more tolerant than their white American counterparts. Charles Hamilton Houston, who would go on to serve as Dean of Howard Law School and train a cadre of influential civil rights attorneys (including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall), recorded in his diary that Paris seemed enthralled with black Americans. “Met some French girls, friends of Antoinette [Brooks]. Had a good time dancing,” he wrote. “French girls anxious to learn our dance, told me that all Paris taken away with ‘Jazz-band’ and our style of dancing. The girls come after the boys in taxis and beg them to go to the dance. Colored boys all the go.”[15]

Charles Hamilton Houston, Paris Diary, Jan 1919, William LePries Houston Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Charles Hamilton Houston, Paris Diary, Jan 15 – 18, 1919, William LePre Houston Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Rayford Logan, a future Howard historian and Lieutenant in the 93rd Division, found France to be a space of limited liberation. He engaged in flirtatious relationships with white French women that in an American context would have resulted in tragedy or at the very least unhappiness. In France, however, his own linguistic abilities in French and the country’s more open-minded view of blacks allowed him a certain sexual freedom unavailable state side. White soldiers sometimes grew enraged in such circumstances, as in one instance when Logan and his date encountered anger from a group of white Americans infuriated by the site of a black man taking a French woman to dinner. Whites such as Corporal Clarence Trotti complained that the French treated black soldiers on equal terms and that when everyone returned to the U.S. “we all are going to have trouble on our hands.” He told his parents to prepare his guns so that he might settle down “Mr. Negro” when the situation called for it in the future.[16]

In some French towns like Vannes, Brittany, white soldiers were able to impose their ideas about segregation on the town to an extent. “Segregation signs went up in dining rooms, and black officers were shunted to the worst corners of the American officers’ hotel,” writes Lentz-Smith. Houston had been stationed there and attempted to build relationships with local shopkeepers, families, and young women but found the influence of segregationists troubling. To a certain degree, their attempts failed as the French clung to their own beliefs and resisted American Jim Crow strictures, but this in turn caused some white soldiers to act out more. When two French girls who had gained the favor of one of the white captains flirted with Houston and his friends, a mob of enlisted men gathered around the black officers in the town plaza calling them “niggers” and threatened violence. Houston’s rank and the eventual appearance of the military police prevented any bloodshed. The reality remained black soldiers experienced a tentative freedom in France, yet even this inkling of liberation gave them a new perspective on the possible.[17]

The Transnational

It should not be forgotten that several hundred thousand colonial troops labored and fought for their colonial rulers in WWI, to say nothing of the over one million Asians who did the same. The presence of colonial soldiers forged a sense of solidarity between them and their African American counterparts, though this too remained somewhat limited. For example, Sergeant Ely Green remembered the French Senegalese soldiers had little love for white men, but hardly saw black Americans as their compatriots. “They despised both white supremacy and the Negro … and they viewed the two together,” Ely recalled.[18] Ironically, Europeans, Africans, and Asians categorized blacks as Americans even if white Americans did not fully embrace such an idea.

Whatever the limits of transnational solidarities, W.E.B. DuBois, who had aggressively promoted black enlistment during WWI, traveled to France in December of 1918 hoping to resuscitate the Pan African movement. DuBois might have been an imperfect vessel for such an endeavor since he believed Europeans and Americans needed to bring a certain level of modernity to Africa. That being said, he hoped to bind African Americans and Africans together through the First Pan African Conference in February 1919. Unsurprisingly, the French government, one of Europe’s leading imperialists, disapproved the conference, but so too did the U.S. The State Department denied passports to numerous invitees including A. Phillip Randolph, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and William Monroe Trotter.[19]

“For a while, it looked as though DuBois ran the danger of hosting a Congress with no delegates,” notes Lentz Smith. “To get around the passport conundrum, he culled delegates from people already overseas and proceeded with his plans.”[20] He found 57 delegates, representing 15 nations, residing in Paris; the U.S. had the largest contingent with 16 attendees. French-speaking nations sent the most collectively: the French West Indies with 13, Haiti and France seven a piece, French West Africa and Algeria one each. Liberia, the Spanish Colonies, and nine other nations provided the rest of the delegates.[21]

The opinions expressed by delegates in regard to identity and Pan Africanism proved diverse and sometimes contradictory. Even domestically within the African American community, internationalism stood subject to disagreement. For some like Marcus Garvey, DuBois’s vision of international solidarity lacked militancy. Then again, at the time, Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) echoed the Pan African Congress’s message of internationalism. The treatment of blacks whether in the U.S. or Africa “cannot be regarded as national or domestic questions, but as international violations of human rights,” UNIA High Commissioner Eliezer Cadet told French and English audiences in 1919. Cadet decided to forgo the conference and instead conducted a speaking tour. Garvey and UNIA believed DuBois and the NAACP cared too much about white opinions. Garvey thought DuBois and the conference should have pushed much harder politically and rhetorically, as many speeches focused “as much on responsibilities as rights.”[22]

Undoubtedly, the First Pan African Congress demonstrated the limits of black international solidarity in a world organized by imperialism in Africa and Asia and Jim Crow in America. DuBois himself struggled to fully detach himself from his own American exceptionalism. However, it did lay the roots for the NAACP’s attention to international issues and solidarity with peoples in Africa and Asia. Moreover, over the coming decades the conference itself would grow into an institution at the center of anti-colonialism and African independence.

Honorable Discharge papers for Charles Hamilton Houston, April 3, 1919, William LePries Houston Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Honorable Discharge papers for Charles Hamilton Houston, April 3, 1919, William LePre Houston Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress


Whatever General Bullard believed happened with the 368th Infantry and General Ballou, Charles Hamilton Houston and his fellow black soldiers clearly disagreed. On a trip to Le Mans in 1919 where he met with men of his old company, Houston “heard the truth about the 368th Infantry and General Ballou, as they state it. Hope they will not let the matter drop, but will push it until guilty parties are punished adequately,” he wrote in his diary.[23] The war and time spent overseas had reshaped expectations. As YMCA aid worker, feminist, and black civil rights activist Addie Hunton pointed out, African American wartime experiences had begun to develop “a racial consciousness and racial strength … that could not have been gained in a half century of normal living in America.” Though limited and far from perfect, France offered an ethereal and fleeting social imaginary both in terms of American and international citizenship.

“Freedom in the United States could not come through the French imaginary,” notes Lentz-Smith, but it would “radicalize a generation of African American men,” thereby laying the groundwork for Marcus Garvey’s nationalism, the Harlem Rennaissance, and a growing anti-lynching movement led by NAACP in the 1920s, along with the “heroic” civil rights period that unfolded after the Second World War.[24] During the 1930s, Charles Hamilton Houston would argue against segregation in the Supreme Court, dismantling the architecture of racism one statute at a time.

In the end, Bullard’s racist recollections seven years after fighting ceased and over 90 years ago and the decisive response by black leaders of the time reflected this new sensibility. World War II might have been even more transformative, in numerous ways, but the First World War set many of these processes in motion. Without Charles Hamilton Houston, perhaps there is no Thurgood Marshall or at least the Thurgood Marshall we’ve come to honor. The success of the Civil Rights movement, took decades; WWI helped establish a framework for desegregation and the civil rights movement of MLK, Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, and others.

[1] Robert Lee Bullard, “Couldn’t Make Negroes Fight Says Bullard,” New York Herald Tribune, June 9, 1925, NAACP Papers, Box C-377, Folder Robert Lee Bullard 1925, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[2] “Following letter to be sent to editors,” circa June 1925. NAACP Papers, Box C-377, Folder Robert Lee Bullard 1925, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; James Weldon Johnson, Letter to Beecher Stowe, June 10, 1925, NAACP Papers, Box C-377, Folder Robert Lee Bullard 1925, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[3] Emmett J. Scott, “Attack on Negro Soldiers Resented,” June 16, 1925, NAACP Papers, Box C-377, Folder Robert Lee Bullard 1925, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Emmett J. Scott, Letter to Arthur M. Page of Doubleday Page Co., July 30, 1925, NAACP Papers, Box C-377, Folder Robert Lee Bullard 1925, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[4] Hamilton Fish, NAACP Press Release, “Congressman Hamilton Fish Defends Colored Soldiers,” June 17, 1925, NAACP Papers, Box C-377, Folder Robert Lee Bullard 1925, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[5] “The Negro Soldier,” New York Herald Tribune, June 13, 1925, NAACP Papers, Box C-377, Folder Robert Lee Bullard 1925, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[6] Jennifer D. Keene, Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America, (Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 20; Adriane Lentz Smith, Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009), 42.

[7] Ronald R. Krebs, Fighting for Rights: Military Service and the Politics of Citizenship, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006, 118.

[8] Maggi M. Morehouse, Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II, New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.

[9] Byron Farwell, Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917 – 1918, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 148-149.

[10] Keene, Doughboys, 28-29.

[11] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 115.

[12] Charles Hamilton Houston, letter to Walter White, May 12, 1941, NAACP Papers, Box[], Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Keene, Doughboys, 23.

[14] Keene, Doughboys, 40, 82-88, 91, 93

[15] Charles Hamilton Houston, Diary, January 16, 1919, William L. Houston Family Papers, Box 20, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[16] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 107-108, 119.

[17] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 132-133.

[18] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 154.

[19] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 162.

[20] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 162.

[21] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 162-163.

[22] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 165,

[23] Charles Hamilton Houston, Diary, January 17, 1919, William L. Houston Family Papers, Box 20, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[24] Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles, 123, 135.