Teaching more than the Harlem Hellfighters; Black History Month, World War I, and the Classroom
By Paul LaRue
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site
February is Black History Month. This provides teachers an important opportunity to highlight diversity too often overlooked in classrooms. World War I content can assist in teaching diversity with lesson plans that highlight the service, sacrifice and heartbreak of African American World War I soldiers and sailors.
About the title: please do not think the heroic service of the Harlem Hellfighters should not be celebrated and taught. What I am saying is – as a thirty-year classroom history teacher, students need and deserve more classroom exposure than a couple of paragraphs in a traditional textbook. I believe the same concept applies to the Civil War service of the Massachusetts 54th and the World War II service of the Tuskegee Airmen. The bravery of these soldiers and their incredible service is not in question.
I do, however, worry students leave American History thinking only a small select group of African Americans served. The African American military experience is as diverse as the other men and women that served. I also question if racism, institutional bias, and African American military service are explored in a genuine way with students. African American military service cannot be explored without these painful discussions.
The World War I Centennial has helped spur both interest and the creation of new African American World War I classroom content. What should a student know about African American World War I service?
Here is African American World War I Service by the numbers:
• 367,710 African Americans were inducted for military service between June 5, 1917 to November 11, 1918.
• 35,586 African Americans served in two Combat Divisions; that represents slightly less than 10% of those inducted. Of the 35,586 soldiers in combat regiments, 2,528 soldiers served in the 369th Infantry, the famed Harlem Hellfighters.
• More than 332,000 African American soldiers served in labor regiments.
• 5,328 African Americans served in the Navy in World War I.
• 4,567 African American World War I casualties (killed, wounded, gassed or missing).
• Two African American World War I Soldiers have been recipients of the Medal of Honor out of the nearly 370,000 African Americans that served. Compare this to the 23 African American Civil War Soldiers and Sailors recipients out of the approximately 200,000 that served the Union.
• In 1919, 78 African Americans were lynched, including 11 ex-soldiers, at least one soldier was still wearing his World War I uniform.
Obviously, numbers only tell a part of the story; but the data demonstrates the significant service and sacrifice of African Americans in World War I. Equally important are stories about the service members. Colonel Charles Young, the third African American to graduate from West Point, was the highest ranking African American in the United States Army in 1917. Colonel Young was passed over for service in France for "medical reasons." Colonel Young, to show his fitness, rode his horse from Wilberforce, Ohio to Washington D.C. in 16 days. Colonel Young's education, rank, and prior military service did not make him immune to institutional racism.
Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson of the 369th has an amazing story of bravery in combat. Also, Lt. Charles Houston's account is notable, especially with his descriptions of racism and discrimination while serving in France and the impact it had on his life.
As with most things, there is more important content than there is time to teach. The World War I Centennial also helped support the World War I Valor Medals Review Act. This act will attempt to help minority veterans receive the recognition they were due. The classroom is still one of the most important places to help build a better understanding of African American World War I service; therefore, the World War I Centennial helped motivate many institutions and organizations to produce quality educational content.
What follows is, by no means, a comprehensive list. Instead, below is "sampler plate" of lesson plans that would work well for Black History Month. These lesson plans were developed in partnership with the National Park Service, The Black History Bulletin, the Ohio History Connection, and the Ohio World War I Centennial. The digital resources are free for educators or any interested persons.
Black History Bulletin, Volume 80, Number 2: African Americans in Times of War.
This issue includes: Unsung African American World War I Soldiers and the learning series African American in times of war: triumphs of tragedies by Sarah Militz-Frielink, La Vonne I. Neal, and Alicia L. Moore.
[Note: The Black History Bulletin was founded in 1937 by Carter Woodson, the founder of Black History month.]
Digital lesson plans and resources:
1.) Colonel Charles Young's Protest ride for Equality and Country:
This lesson plan is from The National Park Service's Teaching with Historic Places series.
2.) African American World War I combat troops:
The lesson plan focuses on the 93rd Division and connections with local communities and includes an article on African American soldiers published in the Stars and Stripes.
3.) African American World War I labor regiments:
Nine out of ten African American World War I Soldiers served in a labor regiment and their story is usually overlooked. The lesson plan includes a letter home by an African American Soldier serving in a labor regiment.
4.) Technology and the United States Army Signal Corp:
The lesson plan introduces students to the technology used by the United States Army Signal Corp. The 325 Field Signal Battalion, featured in the lesson plan, was an elite group of African American World War I Soldiers.
5.) The Ohio History Connection: World War I in Ohio, digital collection, African Americans and World War I:
This provides educators or any interested person with wonderful images of African Americans in World War I. Many of the images are from Camp Sherman. A great way to begin a discussion of African American World War I service is by showing one of these images to your class.
Full disclosure—I served on the Ohio World War I Centennial Committee and wrote lesson plans # 2, 3, and 4, along with the Black History Bulletin article, Unsung African American World War I Soldiers. I co-authored Lesson plan #1 with a former student, Sarah Lane, a second-grade teacher in Tacoma, Washington.
Black History Month provides a great opportunity to honor the too often forgotten or overlooked service of African American World War I soldiers and sailors.