African Americans in World War I

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Anthony J. Mitchell Summer 2002 U.S. Since 1865 History 2063


Before WORLD WAR I, military service represented a source of black pride. Black educators, clergymen, and the press frequently referred to Negro heroes of America's past wars. After the Civil War, the U.S, Army maintained four regular Negro regiments –the 9th and 10th Calvary and the 24th and 25th Infantry. These units included veterans of the civil war and the frontier Indian fighting regiments. Retired sergeants often became respected, conservative leaders in their communities. This history set a foundation for black support and involvement in America's future wars. In 1917, the United States entered World War I under the slogan "Make the World Safe For Democracy." Within a week after the U.S, entered the war, the War Department stopped accepting black volunteers because colored army quotas were filled. No black men were allowed in the Marines, Coast guard or Airforce. However they were allowed in the Navy only an as mess man which was a position the yielded very little advancement and no glory. When drafting began, of the more than 2,000,000 blacks registered 31 percent were accepted to 26 percent of the white men. Blacks then comprised 10 percent of the population. World War I represented a turning point in black American history. It, presented an opportunity to improve race relations at home despite the fighting abroad. How could you be racist against people whom are fighting to stabilize your freedom and the freedom of others was the mentality in the minds of black soldiers.

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Although World War I represented a turning point in American history it was evident racial relations would be and issue at home and abroad. When American troops began arriving on the western front one of the first to arrive on New Years Day in 1918 was the 369th (Harlem Hell Fighters). This unit was the first to reach the Rhine in 1918 where the regiment received 11 unit citations from the French. The 369th regimental band conducted by James Reese Europe and Noble Sissle is credited with the introduction of American Jazz into Europe. (Reid. A life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe. . Little, Arthur W. From Harlem to the Rhine: The story of New York's Colored Volunteers). This regimental band entertained troops and citizens in every city they visited and was received with great enthusiasm. Nobel sissle said at that time the, "The Jazz germ hit France and it spread everywhere we went." It should be noted these bandsmen also had to fight as infantry since no one needed music during periods of combat. Do to this the members often played with battered instruments due to the condition of travel and war. Despite this the soldiers preformed an essential role towards boosting moral by providing an atmosphere void of the war. To prepare the U.S. troops efficiently during World War I troops were sent to the British and French for training. But, when the 92nd Negro division arrived in 1917 and 1918 the British refused to train them. This was yet another obstacle challenging race relations in Europe. General Pershing, protested to the British General Haig, "These Negroes are American Citizens. I cannot and will not discriminate against them." But to avoid making and issue of the case, the War Department scheduled the 92nd for training with the French. The French were delighted to accept the 92nd and
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even requested them to be attached to the French Army. But the War Department refused and the 92nd moved on to participate heroically in the September 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive. Though, black regiments received heroic admiration and acceptance propaganda ran rampart. Reports sent to the War Department stated Black Americans at home were being told Negro...
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