The Unknown Soldiers

African American Soldiers in WWI.

African American Soldiers in WWI.

The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA. 1974) is another one of my favorite books about WWI. This book was updated in 1996 with a modified title (The Unknown Soldiers: African American Troops in World War I) and new introduction by Bernard C. Nalty, but I read the original version.

The authors chronicle the experiences of African American troops during the Great War; something I never heard about in any of my history classes. Over 370,000 African Americans served; the majority of troops were delegated duties of laborer in the Service of Supply (SoS) units (critical and underappreciated work), but four African American regiments fought with the French Army. The existing well-trained regular African American Army units like the Buffalo Soldiers were kept out of France and on duty on the Mexican Border or in the Philippines, but two National Guard regiments and two regiments made up of drafted African American men had General Pershing in a quandary. The American Army (American Expeditionary Forces – AEF) was strictly segregated at the time. Pershing didn’t know what to do with those regiments, so he ended up loaning them to the French who were clamoring for fresh troops. The French welcomed the African American soldiers and had them fighting side by side with French troops as well as conscripted Africans from the French colonies.

The book is meticulously researched and provides countless examples of the blatant racism, violence, and abuse from American society, the government, and the American Army directed toward African Americans. It is both sickening and infuriating to read about institutionalized and cultural prejudice and race-motivated injustices of the time. These men worked, fought and died for the United States but were treated as completely inferior to white American troops in everything from training, rations, equipment and leave opportunities. A good example from the book related to an AEF document called “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops” sent to French officials telling them how African Americans should be treated and why. The idea was that the French should not treat these soldiers with anything even remotely approaching equality, because then these men would be “spoiled” when they went back home. This document was strongly disapproved by the French who for the most part did exactly as they pleased without the advice of the Americans.

Another example from the book that struck a chord with me was about group that made a poster during a demonstration in 1917. It showed kneeling women pleading with President Wilson “to make America safe for democracy before trying to do that job for the world.” Making the world “Safe for Democracy” was something Wilson said when he asked Congress to declare war on Germany in April, 1917 and was often used to justify the war effort. Unfortunately, the poster was confiscated and never made it to the President. For me, it wasn’t just because of the injustices to African American men at the time that made this ironic, but also because women didn’t have the right to vote back then. Some democracy.

The Harlem Hellfighters (369th Infantry regiment ) was the National Guard Regiment from New York City made up of African Americans. The entire 369th regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s military decoration awarded to soldiers or units that distinguish themselves through acts of heroism. Secretary Baker was reported to have called the 369th the all-round most serviceable regiment sent to France. But none of that weighed with the ongoing discrimination. They were still mistreated, bumped in terms of sailing home, and excluded in special rations. As the authors note, “Perhaps the height of pettiness in discrimination against black troops of the 369th was their exclusion from the special holiday rations issued to all other American soldiers on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Nothing changed for these returned veterans in terms of the country’s attitude toward them. Only New York gave an outstanding celebration for their 369th regiment upon returning home. Toni Morrison has a wonderful scene in Jazz where she writes about this homecoming. Elsewhere in the country, little attention was given to these men, except in the south where returning veterans were often met with hostility and violence including beatings and death. The authors note that racial violence and race riots in the summer of 1919 seemed to be triggered by “the return of black veterans,” who were fed up with “moderate Negroes as well as President Wilson.”

With all the rhetoric about making the world safe for democracy, it is clear that there was no real democracy in the U.S.  This and the fact that the War to End all Wars didn’t are the ultimate ironies of WWI.


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