Inquiring Minds: African-American Soldiers in World War I

Adriane Lentz-Smith

The following is an article from the March/April 2017 issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine, in which Adriane Lentz-Smith discusses her research at the Library of Congress into the experiences of African-American soldiers in World War I. Lentz-Smith is an associate professor at Duke University, author of “Freedom Struggles: African-Americans and World War I” and an adviser to the Library’s World War I exhibition. She is also the featured expert about the role of African-Americans in the war for the PBS documentary “The Great War.”

African-American soldiers and civilians in the World War I years saw the war as both obligation and opportunity. Over 380,000 African-Americans served in the nation’s strictly segregated military during the war years, 200,000 traveling with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

Whether they numbered among the 40,000 who served in the two African-American combat divisions or among the majority relegated to labor battalions, black soldiers fought two wars for democracy: President Wilson’s against the Central Powers and their own against white supremacy and Jim Crow. Army lieutenant and, later, Howard University professor Rayford Logan would speak for countless African-American veterans when he wrote in his memoirs that he had been marked by both wars, Woodrow Wilson’s and his own, and that he could not discern fully which war had a more lasting effect.

I found my way to World War I through Rayford Logan and other African-Americans, such as AEF lieutenant (and later civil rights lawyer) Charles Houston, whose experience veered between service and heartbreak. My interest started with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s investigation of the 1917 police attack on black soldiers and their subsequent mutiny in Houston, Texas.

I visited the Library of Congress Manuscript Division to see whether the records of the NAACP housed there contained more incidents of brutal treatment and black rebellion, and to explore what World War I had meant to African-Americans who funneled their activism through local NAACP branches.

The papers opened up a project: they were filled with accounts of everyday people making meaning of the war, defending soldiers—sometimes literally in the cases of troops who ran afoul of the law or of brutal ranking officers—weighing in on what citizenship rights should accrue to black soldiers and linking soldiers’ fates to their own.

The stories, figures and interpretations that I found in them helped me to determine which additional Library collections to seek out, including the papers of Rayford Logan and those of William L. Houston, Charles Houston’s father.

I was no expert when I walked into the Library; I learned how to ask productive questions by wading through the NAACP papers, but Rayford Logan’s papers helped me see the disjuncture between wartime rhetoric and practice. Historian that he was, Logan meticulously recorded in his diary memories of the humiliations heaped on him by white superior officers. Recalling a lieutenant colonel who insisted on assigning sleeping quarters by race over rank, Logan acerbically described the officer’s commitment to segregation as “a perfect example of the American democracy in war.”

I also learned from colleagues I met in the Manuscript Division reading room. Indeed, every time I see my book, “Freedom Struggles,” I think of Jennifer Keene, historian at Chapman College, who first showed me the war poster “True Sons of Freedom” that eventually became my book cover. The intellectual community fostered in the reading room was but one of the many Library of Congress resources that shaped my work.

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