The Forgotten Heroes of World War I

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The 100th anniversary of the end of World War I has occasioned both celebration and controversy. But while honoring as we should the bravery and the sacrifice of the Allied forces, we should not neglect to recall the less honorable side of U.S. participation in the “war to end all wars” — the treatment of black troops.

In recent years, the subject has drawn the interest of any number of serious historians. One source cited by almost everyone is a wonderful firsthand resource, a 1920 book titled “Two Colored Women with the Allied Expeditionary Forces.” The authors, Addie Hunton and Kathryn Magnolia Johnson, were two of only three black women who traveled to Europe, under the auspices of the YMCA, to serve as “welfare workers” at the segregated camps. Their duties essentially involved morale. They showed movies, worked in canteens, helped the soldiers write letters, shopped for soldiers who lacked time, taught the soldiers how to look after their cash, offered educational and religious services.

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All of these tasks were racially segregated. The YMCA sent white women galore to work with the white troops, but only three black women to work with the roughly 200,000 black soldiers who went to Europe. Although the ostensible purpose of the journey was service, in practice the women documented both the black soldiers’ heroism in battle and their wretched treatment at the hands of their fellow Americans.

Upon arriving in Europe, Hunton and Johnson found colored soldiers far from the front, digging ditches and working as stevedores. As later historians have documented, the U.S. Army’s view at the time was that black draftees were probably too stupid for combat. Instead, they “would serve in the military equivalent of chain gangs.” But needs must. War is war, and when at last the “colored troops” of the 92nd Division marched off to battle, the three women went with them. They endured the same rigors of camp and combat as the men.

“Two Colored Women” is a brisk and mesmerizing read. The scenes the authors describe are by turns inspiring and depressing. Many of them involve feats of heroism by members of a race widely viewed at the time as cowardly. But many more serve as profound reminders of the intensity of anti-black feeling among whites of the era.

One tale involves a black sergeant arrested for attacking a civilian. What turned out to have happened was this: The sergeant, who worked at the dispensary, went into the nearby YMCA tent where the secretary, “with much indignation, told him he did not serve Negroes.” In other words, the sergeant should go to the colored tent. The sergeant was “outraged,” but left. The next day, the same secretary came into the dispensary seeking medication. The sergeant was on duty and told him he would have to wait in line. The secretary said that he was in a rush and demanded to jump ahead, “whereupon the sergeant, still smarting under the insult of the day before, unceremoniously ejected him from the building.”

Then there was the time that General John Pershing arrived at Le Mans after the armistice to review the troops. An order was posted: “All troops possible, except colored, to be under arms.” The same order provided that the black soldiers should continue their regular work around the camp while the white soldiers passed in review. And there was this: “Colored troops will be passed through the wet delousing process as planned.”

The slights went on and on. Black troops were not allowed to march in the victory parade in Paris. When officers discovered that the French entertained soldiers in their homes, orders were issued forbidding the 92nd Division — and only the 92nd Division — from “addressing or holding conversation with the women inhabitants of the town.” The black soldiers were also prohibited from entering any building other than their own billets or certain public places — that is, they could not go into private homes. The policy, the authors write, did enormous damage to the reputation of the Americans in the eyes of the French. (One should add that the new rules seem to have been widely disobeyed, as black troops continued to fraternize with civilians.) And during the Atlantic crossing, black officers were not allowed to use the barbershop or eat in the officers’ mess.

On one occasion an African serving in the French Army was shot by an American military policeman. The policeman explained that he saw the color of the other man’s skin and took him for a black American deserter who was wearing a French uniform to facilitate his escape. No charges were filed.

The discriminations suffered by the buffalo soldiers also extended to the battlefield. Consider the battle of the Meuse-Argonne in 1918, the climactic battle of the war. The 368th Regiment (one of four regiments constituting the 92nd) was sent uphill against German machine guns without being issued the weapons necessary for counterfire. They were routed. Their officers were convicted of cowardice and imprisoned, while white officers whose lines of better-trained troops had broken were forgiven. The other three black regiments fought bravely, but the papers back home hardly noticed. One that did was the Milwaukee Sentinel, which ended its encomium on a racist note: “Is there no way of getting a cargo of watermelons over there?” Meanwhile, a number of senior military officers wrote confidential reports to their superiors concluding that “the Negro” was just not the material from which good soldiers were made.

There were stories that did not find their way into the book but easily could have. For example, Southern draft boards often sent to war the most accomplished Negroes — professionals and those who owned their own businesses — while exempting those who worked for whites. At the same time, black doctors and dentists who volunteered and applied for commissions were routinely rejected, so that rather than winding up as officers who volunteered, they would be drafted as privates instead. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that large numbers of black men resisted induction into the armed forces. In the South, Negroes constituted about 60 percent of the “draft deserters.”

But most of those who were called went off to fight, and despite the vicious mistreatment at the hands of their own countrymen, the colored troops proved their bravery and their patriotism in battle. Perhaps Johnson and Hunton (my great-grandmother) were not at all over-the-top when they concluded that the wartime experience, for all of its horror, was worthwhile, as it enabled the black troops to demonstrate “the truth with regard to their conduct, their mental capacity, their God-given talents, and their ability for the leadership of men.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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