(The following is a guest post from Ryan Reft, modern U.S. historian in the Manuscript Division.)
“No son has ever left home whose family had greater pride in him than we have in you,” wrote prominent Washington D.C. lawyer and African American civic leader William LePre Houston to his son, Charles Hamilton Houston in September of 1918. Charles soon sailed for Europe as a Second Lieutenant in the field artillery
First Lieutenant in the 368th Infantry regimentof the 92nd division, one of two segregated combat divisions in the United States Army, the other being the 93rd.
Charles Houston’s dog tags, coat buttons and bullet from his firearm, along with several folders of material related to his World War One service – including diaries spanning from 1918 to 1919 – can be found in the William L. Houston Family papers. The collection reflects the pride, volunteerism and struggles of African-American service personnel and their families during the “Great War.”
Of the 3.7 million soldiers that entered the U.S. military during WWI, 400,000 were black. Many had entered at the behest of African American leaders like W.E.B. Dubois who believed military service would prove that blacks deserved full citizenship. However, racial prejudice conspired to both draft African Americans at a higher percentage than their white counterparts and relegate them to important, but less publicly celebrated roles as camp laborers or as stevedores in European ports. Roughly 42,000 would see actual combat; all under either white American or French officers. Most white American soldiers and officers refused to treat their black peers as equals.
Stationed in France, Houston would find French racial ideas somewhat more liberal than those of Jim Crow America. African-American culture, notably music and dance, proved widely popular. “[A]ll Paris taken away with ‘Jazz-band’ and our style of dancing,” he wrote in a January 1919 diary entry. “Colored boys all the go.”
Yet, Houston’s experience also sharpened his racial consciousness as the discriminatory policies of the American Expeditionary Forces and racist attitudes of white soldiers heightened his desire for equality. Upon his return to the U.S., Houston embarked on a pioneering law career in civil rights, earning a law degree from Harvard and arguing in front of the Supreme Court as counsel for the NAACP. By slowly dismantling segregation, Houston earned the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” From his perch as Dean of Howard Law School, he mentored a cadre of civil rights lawyers, most famously Thurgood Marshall.
Houston’s WWI service left an enduring mark. Throughout his life he appealed for an integrated military and defended the talents of his fellow black soldiers to those who would denigrate them: “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.”
World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.