African American Soldiers 1 gas masks The pilots Riveters Mule Rearing pilots in dress uniforms doughboys with mules African American Officers

The Role of African Americans in World War I 

By Heather Michon
via the ThoughtCo.com web site

Fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the nation’s 9.8 million African Americans held a tenuous place in society. Ninety percent of African Americans lived in the South, most trapped in low-wage occupations, their daily lives shaped by restrictive “Jim Crow” laws and threats of violence.369thView of African American troops of the 369th Infantry, formerly the 15th Regiment New York Guard, and organized by Colonel Haywood, who were among the most highly decorated upon its return home, 1918. They were also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Getty Images

But the start of World War I in the summer of 1914 opened up new opportunities and changed American life and culture forever.

“Recognizing the the significance of World War I is essential to developing a full understanding of modern African-American history and the struggle for black freedom,” argues Chad Williams, Associate Professor of African Studies at Brandeis University.

The Great Migration

While the United States wouldn’t enter the conflict until 1917, the war in Europe stimulated the U.S. economy almost from the start, setting off a 44-month long period of growth, particularly in manufacturing. At the same time, immigration from Europe fell sharply, reducing the white labor pool. Combined with a boll weevil infestation that devoured millions of dollars worth of cotton crops in 1915 and other factors, thousands of African Americans across the South decided to head North. This was the start of the “Great Migration,” of more than 7 million African-Americans over the next half-century.

During the World War I period, an estimated 500,000 African Americans moved out of the South, most of them heading for the cities.

Between 1910-1920, the African American population of New York City grew 66%; Chicago, 148%; Philadelphia, 500%; and Detroit, 611%.

As in the South, they faced discrimination and segregation in both jobs and housing in their new homes. Women, in particular, were largely relegated to the same work as domestics and childcare workers as they had at home.

Read the entire article on the ThoughtCo.com web site here.

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