African American Troops in World War I

General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, acquired his distinctive nickname from serving with the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 10th Cavalry, which attacked San Juan Hill next to the Rough Riders. He was derided as “Nigger Jack” during his assignment as a tactical officer at West Point, but this was sanitized when he attained national prominence.  Blacks were held in such contempt that Colonel Charles Young, the third black Military Academy graduate and former commander of the 10th Cavalry, was medically retired against his wishes despite demonstrated good health in June 1917, due to his impending promotion to brigadier general rather than risk the possibility that he might command white troops.


After much lobbying by blacks and others, two black divisions were formed. Their dramatically disparate experience is a textbook study in the corrosive effects of racism and bigotry. Roughly a half million blacks were drafted and served either in the United States or abroad before the war ended, with around 200,000 deployed overseas. Most of those — 160,000 — served in menial service, labor and support functions, but roughly 40,000 blacks served in two infantry divisions which the War Department grudgingly organized, the 92nd and the 93rd Infantry. Perhaps not by accident, these were the last numerically of the divisions America raised for The Great War.

The first black combat division, the 92nd Division, nicknamed the Buffalo Division, was authorized November 29th, 1917 after considerable political debate and pressure from prominent black citizens. In addition to its four infantry regiments, the 92nd division had two machine gun battalions and artillery, engineer, signal, and other support units making it capable of independent operations — a standard Table of Organization and Equipment. The 92nd was composed entirely of black draftees, including the 365th Infantry Regiment, raised predominantly from Texas and Oklahoma, the 366th drawn from Alabama, the 367th from New York, and the 368th from Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The other black division, the 93rd (Provisional), formed mostly from black National Guard units, was an entirely different story. It was “provisional” because the Army didn’t bother to form the normal support units requisite for a division, such as machine gun, engineer, artillery and logistical units. This division was formed with the roughly five thousand blacks serving in National Guard units, mostly concentrated in the North and Midwest since the South was, to say the least, extremely wary about black men under arms. The temper of the times can be gauged from James K. Vardaman, who when running for governor of Mississippi in 1903 declared, “The only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.”

Thankfully, attitudes in the North were somewhat different. A prominent white New York lawyer organized the 15th New York National Guard Regiment in 1916, which the War Department re-designated the 369th Infantry when it arrived in Europe. The regiment was the first American military force deployed to Europe, arriving December 27, 1917, after a mere two weeks of training due to racial tensions near its training areas in the South. The 8th Illinois National Guard Regiment (“Black Devils”) was likewise redesignated the 370th Infantry Regiment and was unique in having a full complement of black officers, including Colonel Franklin A. Dennison. Many still believed that blacks were not officer material, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. The regiment had recent field experience in Cuba in 1898 and along the Mexican border in 1916, but it too was rushed to France due to unrest of locals living near training bases. The 370th Infantry and the division’s other two regiments arrived in Europe in April 1918 with inadequate training in modern warfare. Since no more National Guard units were available, the 371st Regiment was composed of draftees from the cotton fields of the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The 93rd Division’s fourth regiment, the 372nd, was an amalgamation of National Guard units from the District of Columbia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio and Tennessee, rounded out with a leaven of 250 draftees from Michigan.

All four regiments were hastily transported to Europe after only two weeks of training. There the division was broken up, with individual regiments separately assigned to French divisions because many white American soldiers refused to serve in combat with blacks. This transfer was done in such haste that Colonel William Leland Hayward Sr., the white commander of the 369th Infantry, wrote to a friend, “Our great American general put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.” The French army had been bled white after four years of war, so the four regiments were received with open arms and given excellent training, during which they developed a cohesiveness and esprit de corps enabling them to compile a combat record equaled by few units in the entire American Expeditionary Force. By war’s end, the 369th won acclaim and military honors as the “Harlem Hellfighters, ” an appellation bestowed by their German opponents due to their toughness under fire. They called themselves the “Black Rattlers,” and the French called them the “Men of Bronze.” The regiment set a record for 191 consecutive days in combat, longer than any other regiment in the American Expeditionary Force–after the shortest training period. It could also boast that it never lost a foot of ground nor had a man taken prisoner, though on two occasions men were captured but later recovered. Secretary of War Baker reportedly declared that thee 369th Regiment “the all-round most serviceable regiment sent to France.”

The entire 369th Regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre; in addition, 170 officers and men received this highest French award. The entire 371st Regiment, with its white officers and black draftees, received the Croix de Guerre with palm and sixty officers and 124 men were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The whole 372nd likewise earned the Croix de Guerre. The accompanying citation praised the unit’s “superb spirit and an admirable scorn of danger,”  a florid French expression for raw courage. In addition, forty-one officers, fourteen non-commissioned officers and ninety-seven privates received individual Croix the Guerre awards, while two officers and nineteen men were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Company C was awarded the Croix de Guerre for conspicuous bravery. The 370th was the only regiment that did not receive the Croix de Guerre as a unit, but seventy-one of the unit’s members received the award individually, along with four Médailles Militaires and twenty-one Distinguished Service Crosses. The price the 93rd division’s four regiments paid for their gallantry was heavy — 584 men killed and 2,582 wounded, 32 percent of the division’s assigned strength. Clearly, French acceptance of the 93rd as soldiers made all the difference.

Unfortunately, the Buffalos of the 92nd Division were not so fortunate. The British declined to have this division attached to them as their attitudes of white supremacy mirrored the American army. As a result, the 92nd Division mainly languished in reserve. The division participated in the last big push in the fall of 1918 and many of its units responded creditably. The 92nd Division suffered 1,647 casualties, 120 soldiers killed in action and 1,527 wounded.

The widely disparate results for the two divisions make the effects of American racism apparent. The soldiers of the 93rd Division were adequately trained by the French, but most importantly, treated as men, while the 92nd Division bore the burden of racism and white supremacy, capped by the criminalization of black manhood — coded language for numerous false charges or rape. Only one was proven. Such was the strength of prejudice and fear that these black soldiers might become accustomed to being treated as equals, especially by French women, that the two black divisions were rushed out of the European theatre within a month after the war’s end, the first combat troops home, to avoid incidents with white units. Once home, many black servicemen were lynched, especially in the South, for the mere offense of wearing their uniform. The government’s propaganda had depicted the war as a crusade for democracy, naturally raising expectations that this might be realized at home as well as worldwide. Blacks hoped that their wartime service would facilitate their yearnings for justice and equality at home, but this was not to be. Sadly, the story would be much the same during World War II.

Most of the Services of Supply troops who had served mainly at the ports of St. Nazaire, Brest, Antwerp and Rotterdam, performing menial tasks vital to the war effort, were not so fortunate. Their functions were far from over, in fact just started, as they salvaged equipment and materiel from the battlefields, cleared away barbed wire, filled in miles of trenches, and removed unexploded shells. Worst of all, in fields richly fertilized by human blood, they exhumed bodies and body parts and reburied them, creating six major national cemeteries where 23,000 American servicemen were eventually laid to rest.

As had so frequently been true in the past, and would continue into the future, black potential was wasted, and the contribution that roughly ten percent of the population might have added to the national potential was blithely disregarded due to virulent hate and ignorance. Nevertheless, blacks kept faith with America and continue to strive and made significant contributions.




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Gene Betit

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