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African American Troops in World War I

A Military Experience Based on Separate and Unequal Treatment 

By Calvin Mitchell
Assistant Curator of Philately, The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum
via the Smithsonian National Postal Museum blog

Note: During Black History Month, we have been bringing forward a number of little-known, unique stories about the experiences of African Americans in World War I. Today, we offer a remarkable article, created by Mr. Calvin Mitchell, that gives a broad, insightful overview of the experiences of those 360,000 African Americans who served -- based on their letters home. Mr. Mitchell is Research Associate, and former Assistant Curator of Philately, at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. He is a talented storyteller, as you will see.—Chris Isleib, Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission

Despite concerns about racial discrimination in America, African Americans’ enthusiasm for supporting America’s entry in World War I was quite high in 1917. W.E.B Du Bois, one of the leading African American intellectuals of this period, rallied black support for the war effort in his memorable essay titled “Close Ranks.” Du Bois wrote: “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our social grievance and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.”

6a01157147ecba970c01bb09f7694d970d 800wiPostcard of African American troops at Camp Humphreys. Black troops were restricted to eating outside in tents despite the presence of indoor eating facilities at Camp Humphreys. Because of poor housing conditions for African American troops, the mortality rate for African American troops during the 1918 flu epidemic was much higher than for white troops at the camp. Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum image HSC.339Nearly 368,000 African American men became soldiers in an army of 4 million. Unfortunately, because of institutional racism, the US Army was not prepared to provide equal treatment to African American soldiers. Since the Civil War era, the US Army had been segregated and had only a small number of black officers.

Traditionally, black officers were allowed only to command black troops while white officers commanded both black and white units. The maintenance of racial segregation in the military was sanctioned by President Woodrow Wilson and the army’s senior and civilian command structure, including General John Pershing and the Secretary of War Newton Baker.

Adherence to this rigid policy meant that black troops, particularly draftees, were assigned to quartermaster and engineer units—occupational categories that performed the bulk of menial and unskilled labor for the army. 89% of all black troops drafted during World War I served in labor battalions, salvage companies, stevedore organizations, and infantry support units. Only 56% of white troops served in noncombatant units. Consequently, a disproportionate number of black troops in World War I were assigned to military camps throughout the United States, while military quotas and racism restricted the use of African American troops in the European Theatre, especially in combat units.

At several of these camps, such as Camp Sherman, Ohio; Camp Eustis, Virginia; Camp Humphreys, Virginia; and Camp Lee, Virginia, African American soldiers experienced mistreatment, racial discrimination and physical abuse by their white officers. African American troops were often degraded in rank, or prohibited from advancing. African American troops did not report these incidents through their military chain of command because they feared recriminations and reprisals from their commanding white officers, many of whom were part of the initial problem.

Read the entire article on the Smithsonian National Postal Museum blog site here:

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