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Friday, April 26, 2013

Decorated Black World War I Combat Heroes

Prior to the United States entering World War I in 1917, there were four Black regiments in existence: The 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. The men in these units were well regarded in their respective communities. Collectively they were known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The Militia Act of July 17, 1862, allowed Blacks to serve in the Army. On July 28, 1866, Congress also permitted Black soldiers to serve as peacetime Army soldiers after the Civil War. (1861-1865). I stated previously that the Buffalo Soldiers received a Medal of Honor as a group, and I will describe their comprehensive and exciting history in the future.

 The War Department needed additional soldiers for The Great War, also known as World War I,  in 1917. Black Volunteers quickly reached their quota.

The image of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln  looms over the
Black WWI Soldiers fighting abroad in this painting.

More than 350,00 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I., reports that 1, 400 served as officers. Emmett J. Scott worked for eighteen years as the private secretary to Negro leader Booker T. Washington. He then became Special Assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker. It was Scott's job to "oversee the recruitment, training, and morale of the African American Soldier." Scott authored the Official History of the American Negro in the World War in 1919, with assistance from  author Alice Dunbar Nelson and Carter G. Woodson. Woodson is the creator of Negro History Week during the month of February; Negro History evolved into Black History Month. (

Yet in a secret memo by General John J. Pershing, concerning African American troops sent to the French military:

We must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops , especially in front of white Americans.

It was also reported that:

"Even when integrated into fairly progressive camps, black soldiers were often treated badly and sometimes went for long periods without proper clothing. There were also reports of blacks receiving old Civil War uniforms and being forced to sleep outside in pitched tents instead of warmer, sturdier barracks. Some were forced to eat outside in the winter months, while others went without a change of clothes for months at a time."(Derived from for respect.)

The newly created 93rd Division was composed of National Guard Units from several states and the 92 Division were comprised of draftees. General Pershing brokered a deal with the French to have the Black combat soldiers fight along side the French, since white soldiers did not want to fight along side with Blacks in battle. The French desperately needed fresh soldiers and eagerly accepted American Blacks on the front lines. 

"The Harlem Hellfighters"
 369th Infantry was the first to fight for America during this first global conflict. They fought wearing French Helmets and under the French flag. This unit was highly decorated. The 369th Infantry helped to stop the German offensive and launch a counter offensive. They spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit in the war. One hundred and seventy one Blacks were awarded the military highest honors. The honors came from the country of France, not the United States.

Henry Johnson (1897-1929) was a Private in the 369th Army Infantry. Johnson fought off a group of German soldiers with only a bolo knife and a gun and even rescued an injured comrade. His son stated, "He got wounded twenty one times and what he did was stop the Germans from getting through the French line." He received military honors from the French Army. Henry Johnson received American accolades posthumously: the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Army's distinguished Service Cross in 2003. Henry Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Henry Johnson

Eugene Bullard (1895-1961) joined the French Army during the early years of WWI. Bullard was wounded several times during the war and became the first African American fighter pilot in military history. A biography, Black Swallow of Death, describes his heroic exploits. Bullard was forced to return to the States in the 1940s due to his French resistance activities and the Nazis.

First African American WWI fighter pilot,
Eugene Bullard, nicknamed the Black Swallow of Death
Croix de Guerre, highest military
awarded during WWI

*The Harlem Hellfighters, the nickname given to the 369th Infantry, were not permitted to participate in the farewell parade of New York's National Guard, the so called Rainbow Division. Why? because Colonel Haywood informed them that Black was not a color in the rainbow! Normally after victory is declared celebrations take place.( The 369th were given an alternative parade.Thousands welcomed these returning soldiers. Unfortunately, for my father, a Montford Point Marine, he received no parades or honor as a WWII combat soldier after his tour of duty. Many surviving Montford Point Marine Vets share the same bittersweet narrative.

africanage/,,, fortheloveof

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Uncle Sam, Blacks and the Great War

 My grandfathers did not serve in World War I. They did not make the age requirement. On May 18, 1917, the United States Congress passed the Selective Service Act. The act required males from the ages of 21 through 30 to register for the draft. When the United States declared war on Germany, the War Department knew that the paltry number of 126,000 Army men would not be enough to defeat the Central Powers.*

Meanwhile, Negroes wanted to prove that they were loyal and patriotic.  They felt that this would improve their status as second class citizens. So they signed up in droves, eager to serve their country. The eagerness to sign up was very similar to the positive sentiment demonstrated during World War II.

Uncle Sam represents the US Government.

Some Black men showed apathy and outright refusal to fight in World War I. " The Germans ain't done nothin' to me and if they have, I forgive 'em." (Source: This comment by a Harlem resident, eerily reminds me of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali's remark about the Vietcong, some five decades later when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. (See earlier post, "Dad Decides To Become A Marine").  A small fraction of Black men thought it was wrong to sign up for the war overseas. The US Government passed the June 1917 Espionage Act and the May 1918 Sedition Act "to crack down on dissent".  Negro leaders were under surveillance because of their anti-war rhetoric.

A. Phillip Randolph
photo courtesy of

A magazine called The Messenger was founded by A.Phillip Randall (1889-1979) and Chandler Owen in 1912. It called for "more positions in the war industry and the armed forces for Blacks". A Phillip Randall worked tirelesslesly to organize Black workers and fight discrimination throughout his lifetime. He established the first Black labor union and challenged both President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and President Harry S. Truman to end discrimination in the federal government and the armed forces. Randolph would ultimately be responsible for President Truman signing Executive Order 9981, which prohibited segregation in the armed forces. But this historical feat was accomplished much later, in the year 1948. (Source:

I learned today that Black men were required to tear one corner of their registration cards so they could easily be identified and inducted separately. In the South, draft boards were doing all they could to bring Negros into service. They were less likely to be exempt from service. Of course, by serving I am referring to positions such as stevedores, cooks, drivers, and support positions. It was decided that "they were better suited in manual positions". (info derived from

 The torn right corner  immediately identified Blacks.

 In addition to the intense enlistment of Black soldiers, I discovered that Southern postal workers deliberately withheld the registration cards of eligible Negros men. Why? This practice was done to have them arrested and jailed as draft dodgers. These men owned their own farms and had families. Sadly, it was a deplorable way for those in power to break up the family unit, weaken the Negro man, and financially profit from taking their farms. The farms were a source of pride in the South, particularly since Negroes were descendants of sharecroppers and enslaved Africans.

This deliberate scheme reminds me of how people who wish to harm others convene and plot for the demise of another group for financial gain. One example is the often touted "School to Prison Pipeline for Black Boys". It is also refered to as the Prison Industrial Complex. Social rights activist icon Angela Davis eloquently describes mass incarceration in the video below:

                                                The image of Uncle Sam is shown in this video.

 Human trafficking is another example of how a group of people will exploit another set of individuals. Young woman are lured to this country with the promise of a job, and a better standard of life. These women use their life savings to go to America, the land of opportunity. But unbeknownst to the women, once they arrive their passports are taken from them along with their money and the women are forced to work as slaves. Another scenario is when females are given housing or a meal, and then coerced to participate in a lurid, unsafe lifestyle.

 I would be remiss to not discuss the role of Black Women in the Great War effort and several exceptional African American World War I combat divisions. These contributions will be the subject of my next post. Again, all branches EXCEPT the Marines Corps accepted African Americans. The Marines did not accept African Americans until World War II.

WWI Soldiers

* Notes: military
stevedore: one who is employed in the unloading of ships.

Uncle Sam:  nickname for the US Government. His origins were based on an actual person by the name of Samuel Wilson, whose firm had a contract to provide meat for soldiers during the War of 1812. The artist who created the portrait was named James Montgomery Flagg.(

Angela Davis: Social rights advocate, professor, civil rights activist, former member of the Communist Party and Black Panthers. Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944. She has authored many books, and
lectures throughout the world.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A World War I Primer

I had previously discussed the fact that the United States entered World War II after the surprise morning attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  But it is also imperative to discuss World War I. The first World War was brought on by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914. The political unrest ushered in a new era of fighting wars:   The introduction of chemical gas, trench warfare, machine guns and tanks. World War (also known as the Great War) was aptly named because of the unparalleled amount of casualties and destruction involving many nations. World War I included the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, vs the Allies. The Allies consisted of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan, and later the United States of America. (Source:

Incidentally, African American Garret Morgan invented the gas mask 1914. His gas mask was originally used to rescue trapped men in an underground tunnel. Morgan's gas mask was later refined for use against chemical warfare in WWI. He was also the inventor of the traffic light; because of this brilliant man millions of people owe their lives. (Source:

Source: www.paterson.

The concept of the tank was developed in 1914 by the British. The tank was needed to cross enemy lines and trenches. A British Army colonel named Ernest Swinton and William Henkey went to then British Navy minister Winston Churchill. Churchill championed the idea of developing a "land boat". The rest, as they say, is history. In September of 1915, the first tank came into being, albeit a clumsy one. Here is a video of the tank, called "Little Willie", below:

What caused the United States to become involved in WWI? According to

America entered World War One on April 6th, 1917. Up to that date, America had tried to keep out of World War One - though she had traded with nations involved in the war- but unrestricted submarine warfare, introduced by the Germans on January 9th, 1917, was the primary issue that caused Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress to declare war on Germany on April 2nd.  Four days later, America joined World War One on the sides of the Allies.

 The Ottoman Empire included Turkey and was once the world's greatest independent Islamic power.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was the use of sinking merchant and passenger ships, vessels that included American passengers. President Woodrow Wilson had for the longest promised to keep the United States out of World War I. But the loss of innocent American lives compelled Wilson to act.

Decisive battles led to the brutal defeat of the Central Powers by the Allies in November, 1918. Europe was essentially decimated and countries were left in ruins. No other war in the history of mankind at the time had caused such rampant destruction. It has been estimated that over nine million lives were lost and twenty one million soldiers and civilians were injured as a result of this war from both sides.  ( Source:

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919.  This was an extensive document and was primarily negotiated by the Big Three: Woodrow Wilson of America, David Lloyd George of Britain and Georges Clemenceau of France. George and Clemenceau wanted Germany punished so that another war of its magnitude would never happen again. Woodrow Wilson of America "could not understand how an advanced civilization could have reduced itself so that it had created so much devastation." America opted for non-intervention policies.

The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1918 determined post-war borders from Europe to the Middle East, established the League of Nations as an international peace organization and punished Germany for its aggression with reparations and the loss of territory. Tragically the instability caused by World War I would help make possible the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Also around this time The Russia Revolution had occurred. The Russian Revolution was the overthrow of imperial tsar rule in Russia and led to the creation of the Soviet Union under the Communist Party. British leader David Lloyd George had concerns of Communism* spreading throughout Europe in the future when signing the Treaty of Versailles. Furthermore, The Spanish Flu left over twenty five million people dead. Such was the dire background of World War I.

*Communism- a type of government that relies on collectivization of labor and good to equal out the (socio-economic) classes. (obtained from

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