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World War I: African-American Soldiers Battle More Than Enemy Forces

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This is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

“Interpreters were brought from everywhere to instruct our men in the French methods of warfare because be it known that everything American was taken from us except our uniform.”

—Noble Sissle, 369th “Harlem Hell Fighters” Regiment

Recruits for what would become the 369th Regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hell Fighters.”

The Library of Congress exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I explores the role of African-American soldiers in the war and ways in which the international conflict contributed to a growing racial consciousness among black veterans.

Over 350,000 African-Americans served overseas for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during the war. Most toiled away in important but menial positions—as stevedores, camp laborers, clerks. But between about 40,000 and 50,000 black American troops served under French commanders in the war, largely in the 93rd Division of the AEF, consisting of the 369th through the 372nd regiments. No black troops experienced as much combat as those assigned to the French military.

As historians like Jennifer Keane, Chad Williams and Adriane Lentz-Smith have demonstrated, racism was deeply embedded in the segregated World War I military. Among officers and the rank and file, white soldiers felt no compunction in demeaning their black counterparts. In France, “U.S. troops were busy spreading rumors among the civilian population that blacks were rapists, thieves, and had tails,” Keane points out.

Although the soldier pictured here is unidentified, his uniform indicates that he served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Its three-towered castle appears on his collar insignia and is echoed in artist Dan Smith’s commemorative certificate.

Although the government organized its first officer’s training camp for black troops during World War I, the camp was segregated. Located in Des Moines, Ia., it trained only enlistees for the infantry. White officers eschewed imparting artillery and engineering skills to camp enlistees even though such skills proved crucial at the front, where many soldiers found themselves assigned to artillery and engineering units. And even in its limited focus on infantry, the camp’s military leaders failed to adequately train their charges for the challenges ahead. The division that emerged from the camp experienced combat, but under white officers who took every opportunity to denigrate the division’s efforts while obscuring their own failures of leadership.

What to do with black soldiers generally once they were trained bedeviled leadership. AEF commander General John J. Pershing and others refused to integrate the armed services, and military leaders struggled with how to assign the 93rd Division. By assigning it to the French army, Pershing fulfilled a pledge to supply combat regiments to the French, while also freeing “himself from the dilemma of how to use the African-American fighting regiments of the provisional 93rd,” writes Williams.

Doing so came with a cost, however. “They now became France’s problem, an act that cast African-American troops as outside the U.S. Army, and in a symbolic sense, outside the nation itself,” Williams states. W.E.B DuBois summed up the treatment endured by black soldiers from their white American counterparts: “[T]he American Negro soldier in France was treated with the same contempt and undemocratic spirit as the American Negro citizen is treated in the U.S.”

The 369th was the first black regiment to reach European shores in late December 1917; it was also the first to gain notoriety for its fighting skills when Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts successfully defeated a German assault, earning the French military’s highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. “The first heroes of the American Army came from that regiment,” wrote Noble Sissle.

He described relations between the French and their African-American counterparts as generally good. French officers befriended African-American troops and officers, while the noncommissioned officers “treated our boys with all the courtesy and comradeship that could be expected.”

Most African-American soldiers, whether fighting for the AEF or the French military, experienced a great deal more freedom in France than they did in the U.S. Though the French had their own racial issues, black Americans found the country devoid of Jim Crow segregation. Many dated French women, which infuriated their white AEF counterparts.

When the 369th returned from the front in 1919, it enjoyed a boisterous parade in New York City to celebrate its contributions. But many other black veterans experienced hostility, finding themselves subject to verbal abuse, assault and even lynching.

“The disillusion of wartime encounters would feed the transformation of black soldiers’ political consciousness,” notes Lentz-Smith of African-Americans in the AEF.

Even before the war concluded, thousands joined civil rights organizations to push for racial equality—from 1917 to 1919, the NAACP expanded its ranks sixfold. More militant veterans allied with the League for Democracy, organized by and for black veterans as a means to promote racial equality and democracy. The government took a dim view of the organization, including it in a 1919 report entitled “Negro Subversion.”

In the end, DuBois captured the attitude of black World War I veterans best in his 1919 poem, “Returning Soldiers”:

We return
We return from fighting
We return fighting

World War I Centennial, 2017–18. With the most comprehensive collection of multiformat World War I holdings in the nation, the Library 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.

Comments (15)

  1. Love to find out more. Great place to research.

  2. Black troops joined the French Army in Davis, Ca. They were sent to France to join in combat against the German Army. They earned the sobriquet “Blue Devils” from the German Soldiers, their French uniforms were blue. The Davis high school sport teams are called the “Blue Devils” in commemoration.

  3. Thank you Robert! Love that information. Am writing and drawing these soldiers and that era. Research is my middle name!

  4. This is amazing information. My great grandfather born in Mississippi served in France in 1918 and lost one of his legs during battle. So many stories

  5. And yet my neighbors say they have had enough of the demononstrating, one even commenting “They have been free for 150 years, what more to they want?” And I say, “What do you think they have now?” Try to explain the syphillis experiments on black men, The Green Book, Rosa Parks, Tuskogee Airmen, Henrietta Lack, Vivien T. Thomas, Garrett Morgan, Mia Angelo, Harriette Tubman, not to mention the musical talents of black men and women, the advancements in medicine and other technologies… Heart breaking!

  6. The views of General Pershing are different depending on which LOC webpage you view. On the Today in History, July 15 site, Gen. Pershing sent the 93rd Division to the French to provide greater opportunities for African American soldiers. From my research this is a not a true representations of his views about African American soldiers in the AEF. This guest blog represents a more accurate view of African American soldiers experience in the AEF and General Pershing views of race. This is a very good brief summary of their experiences.

  7. August 13 will be the 66th anniversary of the killing of Lamar Smith, WWI Veteran and Civil Rights leader. He was collecting absentee votes for his black community in Brookhaven, MS. Shot at point blank range on the steps of the courthouse. About 50 people were on the lawn that day. Not one person came to his aid. And no one testified against the three white men who ambushed him. This terrible event happened two weeks before young Emmit Till was murdured and tortured about 200 miles away in another Mississippi community. Here’s what it says on Lamer Smith’s tombstone: PV1 420 RES LABOR BN QMC WWI. I’d love to find out more about where he went in WWI and what he did. We are trying to get a sign put up in this town in his honor and memory. If anyone here can help out– I’d really apprecaite it.

    • Hi there,

      You might want to start with Jerry Mitchell at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Jerry has done heroic work on civil rights-era killings and his Facebook page today has a short bit about Lamar Smith. There’s also the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which has at least some material on him.

      Neely (7th generation Mississippian)

  8. My mother was one of eight children born to my grandmother and grandfather. She was born in 1920 after WW1, she was the third youngest child. When I was born there were only four of them left and three of them lived in St. Louis. From what she was told as a child the American Negro doing World War I were not treated very well in this country . They were treated so much better in France and that was still the way it was when I was born in 1938 .

  9. My Dad, Robert Stevens, fought with this Unit in WWI. He was from Terry, Mississippi.

    • Hi, and thanks for writing — particularly as my family is from Lexington, Miss.!


  10. My grandfather, Jim Tyson, was a WWI infantry man fighting in the Argonne forest. He and several of his black buddies killed and captured a number of German soldiers. The Germans had gotten their password for entering camp. Jim Tyson and his buddies were decorated by the French for their bravery. Their American white commanders were angry that the French decorated them. They told the French commanders that “if you like the black bastards so much, you can keep them.” For the rest of the war Jim Tyson and his buddies fought in French Uniforms and Jim Tyson brought it home with him from the war. My daddy Henry Tyson, Sr. saw him in it when he would put it on for his family and friends.

  11. Are there any numbers on how many black WW1 soldiers, who fought in the French military, stayed in France after leaving US military service?

    Thank you,

    • Hi Hal,

      You can ask an LOC reference librarian exactly that question at our online service,

      I’d start with either the history section or the Veterans History Project, but that’s just my best guess.


  12. General Black Jack Pershing. Got his nickname from other officers becyhe commanded black troops in the west and Mexican punitive campaigns. He knew what black troops could do and loaned the 93rd to the French do they could fight.

    Whom ever said they were blue devils is wrong. The “les Diables Bleus” (“the Blue Devils”) given to the Chasseurs Alpins during World War I.  A French mountain division. They might have come in contact with the 369th but that is all.

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