WWI: a war for justice Black soldiers didn’t win

Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) received Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919 (Photo courtesy of US National Archives)

America has always touted the heroism of her men in uniform who fought bravely for justice, country, and the American way of life. The battles won and lost were historic chapters in schoolbooks. Great conflicts such as the Civil War, World War I and World War II were proof of America’s fight for democracy. The troops came home as heroes.

However, there is another side to the story. The demeaning and humiliating treatment of America’s Black men in uniform goes largely untold. Those facts are downplayed or hidden.

Almost 400,000 African Americans enlisted in WWI. They wanted to fight alongside White men on the battlefield. But America’s color line followed them across the ocean to foreign shores.

On June 26 the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota (AAICM), in association with the Minnesota Historical Society, held a forum and panel discussion at the Mill City Museum called “WWI: The Black Experience” to talk about instances of racism and cruel treatment of African Americans during that conflict.

Discussions included the rise of the Black population in Minneapolis and St. Paul during an era when men and women in uniform faced injustices before and after they served their country. The panelists also talked about the social movements that arose from those experiences.

The panel moderators were Dr. Rose Brewer of the University of Minnesota’s African American Studies Department, Peter DeCarlo from the Minnesota Historical Society, and JoJo Bell, board president for AAICM.

Dr. Brewer stated, “You can’t understand the implications of the war without understanding the Great Migration of WWI.” More than six million African Americans relocated from the rural South to cities in the North, Midwest and West, including New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Brewer said African Americans were subjected to menial chores and primarily supporting roles, called service of supplies. “There was never racial equality with housing, or jobs.” Implications after WWI had a dramatic effect on Blacks as well, with the Red Summer of 1919, precipitated by labor shortages, the Great Migration and racial tension. The riots resulted in hundreds of deaths and high casualties across the United States.

DeCarlo said that for Blacks, “There [was] this tension of fighting for civil rights, freedom and patriotism.” He said ever since segregation in the Civil War, the Army was an extreme example of institutionalized racism, even though to African Americans putting the uniform on was a symbol of citizenship.

WWI Black soldiers were enlisted, with most of them in labor units. “They worked in the training camps, built the trenches, roads, and buried the dead bodies from casualties,” DeCarlo said.

Dr. Brewer said the Twin Cities currently has the worst disparities in the nation in terms of racism, jobs, housing and other equalities, similar to the aspects of WWI. “The closest competition is Wisconsin, and that’s not saying very much,” she said. “What is really going on in the Twin Cities…is a political struggle.”


Ivan B. Phifer welcomes readers’ responses to ivan.b.phifer@gmail.com.

2 Comments on “WWI: a war for justice Black soldiers didn’t win”

  1. Thank you for covering this special event and thanks to the AAICM for inviting Peter DeCarlo to participate.

    Peter’s essay in the current issue of Minnesota History magazine, “Loyalty Within Racism: The Segregated Sixteenth Battallion of the Minnesota Home Guard During World War I”, is available online at http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/65/v65i06p208-219.pdf

    He will also speak again on this topic at the October 10 free History Lounge event at the Minnesota History Center. More information at http://www.mnhs.org/event/3584

    (Disclosure: I work for the Minnesota Historical Society Press and am a colleague of Peter’s.)

  2. The role of African Americans in combat in WWI is not very widely known. Our new book entitled “African American Doctors of World War I” (which can be reviewed on Amazon) focuses on the lives of 104 medical doctors who volunteered and served with the Army’s two black combat divisions, the 92nd and 93rd, in WWI. One died on the battlefield and several died soon afterward. Most used their military training and experience to serve the nation for many years following the war. Very interesting lost history. I am one of the co-authors who devoted more that 5 years to this research. Doug Fisher

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