African Americans, World War I

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Shortly after U.S. involvement in World War I ended, American serviceman Daniel Mack died in his uniform. He wasn't killed on the battlefields of Europe, but like many other black Americans Daniel Mack was a casualty of World War I. Having fought in France to make the world safe for democracy, Mack returned to Sylvester, Georgia, determined to enjoy the benefits of freedom. Vowing to never yield to Jim Crow again, Mack ignored "white only" signs, earning himself thirty days in jail—thirty days he never served because a white mob dragged him from jail to the outskirts of town and beat him to death. Mack's story is more than a personal tragedy; it signifies the changes, hopes, and disillusionment that World War I brought to African Americans.

military service

For many African Americans in 1917, participation in World War I seemed to promise a better future. Living in a world characterized by racial discrimination and segregation, they believed that African Americans might earn full citizenship by closing ranks with whites during the war. Thousands volunteered for military service and two million registered for the draft. In the end, almost 400,000 African Americans mustered into the U.S. military, which was still a segregated institution. Most of them served in either army service units or as navy stewards, but two army divisions, the 92nd and the 93rd Provisional, enrolled 42,000 blacks as combat soldiers in segregated units. Some of these units performed poorly overseas, perhaps because of inferior training or leadership or simply because of the nature of a segregated army, but a number of African Americans served with such distinction that they received individual honors. France awarded hundreds of its coveted medal, the croix de guerre, to African-American soldiers who had shown exceptional courage and fortitude. In 1917, the United States opened an officer training school for African Americans in Fort Des Moines, Iowa. With a history of military honors, 750 battle deaths, and 5,000 wounded to their credit, returning African-American soldiers hoped that legal, if not social and economic, equality might now be a real possibility back home. Some, like Daniel Mack, resolved to turn these hopes into realities.

the homefront and african-american migration

On the homefront, equality remained elusive, but the war did open some new opportunities to African Americans. The immigration restrictions enforced throughout the war and the absorption of white laborers into the military had left Northern industries desperate for a new supply of workers. Once locked out of Northern labor markets, African Americans now found themselves courted by Northern factory managers. Recruiters offered Southern blacks free transportation and high wages to relocate to Northern industrial areas such as Chicago, Cleveland, Saint Louis, and Detroit. Lured by these promises, tens of thousands of African Americans pulled up stakes and poured into the North. Despite Southern efforts to protect their labor pool by means of both conciliation and intimidation, more than 300,000 African Americans had left the South by 1920 and thousands more followed later.

Black migrants did not find everything to their liking in the North, but they did benefit from the move. Economically, the exodus proved a move upward; African Americans made more money in factories than they had ever made on Southern farms, and this foothold in American industry created a path to future financial success. Simple relocation also moved many African Americans from the ranks of the disenfranchised to the voting booth. At a time when Jim Crow legislation in the South prevented African Americans from voting, most Northern cities allowed citizens of any color to vote, and migrating African Americans suddenly found themselves part of the country's political scene. Wartime migration, however, had negative consequences as well as benefits.

postwar legacy

As African Americans moved North, and as black soldiers returned from the war, racial tensions and violence escalated. African Americans increasingly found themselves the targets of white mobs who felt blacks were competing for their neighborhoods, jobs, and recreational areas. In what came to be called the Red Summer of 1919 for the bloodshed and violence that took place between whites and blacks all over the country, more than thirty-eight northern cities erupted in riots. Frustrated whites in Chicago drowned an African-American youth by pelting him with rocks from the shore. This ignited a week of lawlessness during which 38 people died and another 520 suffered injuries. In Omaha, Saint Louis, and elsewhere the same scene played out, with the same tragic results.

As increasing numbers of African Americans moved North, so did segregation. Northern cities, including Washington, D.C., passed laws to separate the races. President Woodrow Wilson even replaced African-American office holders with whites and initiated a systematic segregation of civil service jobs.

In the South, too, race relations deteriorated. The newly revived Ku Klux Klan became more visible and more violent in response to the perceived postwar threat of African Americans infected with foreign notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity. After 1915, the lynching

of African Americans became commonplace in the South. From 1916 to 1919, almost 300 people, mostly Southern blacks, lost their lives to lynch mobs who either hanged them or burned them alive. A number of these, like Daniel Mack, were returning soldiers still in uniform. Southern cities such as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, experienced riots, although these were less common in the South than in the North. In Tulsa, angry whites laid waste to an entire black section of the city, burning thirty-five square blocks and murdering hundreds of men, women, and children because of their race. All over the South, conditions worsened for African Americans as the homefront effects of World War I sharpened racial tensions.

For African Americans who had expected better returns for their wartime service at home and abroad, peace brought great disillusionment. Northward migration conferred some political rights and some increased economic power but did nothing to change African Americans' status as second class citizens and in fact spurred more incidents of mistreatment. Each new lynching deepened resentment, and accounts of African-American soldiers hanged without cause by military police in Europe further embittered African Americans. But the population shifts and renewed commitment to the ideals of equality and democracy that war brought on also gave birth to a new generation of educated African Americans committed to achieving more, both socially and culturally, than had been even dreamed of by their forebears. The Harlem Renaissance drew its strength from the sons and daughters of African Americans who had migrated North during the war. And common experiences pulled the African-American community together, building solidarity in the demand for racial equality. Men like W. E. B. DuBois took up where the Daniel Macks left off, calling upon African Americans of all classes to fight for freedom at home. Decades later, African Americans would march to World War II determined to secure a double victory—one for their country abroad against the Axis Powers and one for their race at home against inequality and segregation. When they returned to America, they were more resolved than ever to secure the liberties African Americans had dreamed of in World War I, and their determination jumpstarted the American Civil Rights movement.


Barbeau, Arthur E., and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974.

MacGregor, Morris J. Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, U.S. Army: 1981.

Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 3d revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Melinda Lee Pash

See also:Civil Liberties, World War I; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Women and World War I.

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African Americans, World War I

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African Americans, World War I