As Americans hotly debated if the United States should enter the war in Europe, white plantation and railroad owners, fearing the continued loss of their labor force would press President Wilson and Congress not to recruit African American troops. Despite the gross self-interests of southern, white political and business leaders, over 350,000 African Americans would eventually serve their country during the war. Congress would pass the Selective Service Act in 1917 requiring all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for the draft, including African Americans. For the most part, African American servicemen were placed into service and labor units.
Despite the harsh discrimination of the 19th century spilling over into the start of the 20th century and WWI, African American men and women came forward to serve their country. More importantly, they would utilize the threat to country and home to seize the opportunity to gain respect and equality.
This article (see image) describes the concerns that African American (Negro) soldiers were being given more dangerous combat duties as compared to white soldiers. General John “Black Jack” Pershing who responds directly to the reports as false and that the “Negroes were in high spirits and that their only complaint was that they were not given more active service.”
For as much as General Pershing knew first-hand of the bravery, discipline and preparedness of African American troops, he would bow to the political pressures of President Woodrow Wilson and the larger white American society that would not condone black and white troops fighting side by side in trenches in Europe. Disappointingly, Pershing would reach a decision to place African American troops under foreign command and combat with our French allies.
“We must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans…”
— General John J. Pershing Directive to French Military Mission
At the start of America’s involvement in the war, there were already 20,000 African heritage uniformed servicemen. Approximately 10,000 were in four regiments of color and 10,000 in National Guard units representing the states of New York, Illinois, District of Columbia, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and Tennessee. At the time of the overseas deployment, two African American combat divisions, the 92nd and 93rd, comprised of approximately 40,000 troops, would see combat.
The 92nd included the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Unwilling to let black men actively fight in combat, the American army “loaned” the 93rd Division to the French 157th “Red Hand” Division. Regiments included 369th, 370th, 371st, and 372nd. It was the only American division to serve exclusively under French command.
The 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the Harlem Hell Fighters, was known for being the first African-American regiment to serve in combat with the American Expeditionary Force during the War.
Africans and African Americans in France
African American combat soldiers of the 93rd Division would serve on loan under the French 157th “Red Hand” Division.
The French Army also recruited tens of thousands of soldiers from the French African colonies of Algeria, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia and Madagascar.
World War I and the battlefields of France would historically reunite descendants of enslaved Africans in America with the peoples of the African continent who had been separated for centuries through the Atlantic Slave Trade.
African-American troops often interacted with North and West African soldiers serving in the French military, reconnecting with their Diaspora cultural roots.
This fighting force of blended African and African American troops would provide the needed strength for the French and allies to help win the war.
Profile of Heros
PFC Arthur Burton
PFC. Arthur Burton of Newport, Rhode Island was killed in action on September 26, 1918. Young Burton served in the 93rd Infantry Division, 372nd Regiment, and Company K. Burton was a part of the 372nd Regiment that took part in the Battle of the Argonne Forrest. A journal entry from a fellow combatant described the action that day as, “Over the top, the machine gun fire is thick and the 88’s are falling like hail.” Burton would fall on the first day of battle.
Today, he is at rest at the North Burying Ground in Newport, RI. For his unselfish and ultimate service to country the Arthur Burton VFW Post in Newport is named in his memory.
Lt. Charles Henry Barclay, 93rd Infantry Division, 372nd Regiment, Company M is one of many stories of African American men who came forward to serve their country with honor and dignity. Charles Henry Barclay was born in 1875 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He married in 1896 and he and his wife moved to New Haven by 1903. He operated his own ornamental sign painting business at 102 Ashmun Street.
At the age of 45 when most men stayed behind, Lt. Barclay and the 372nd departed on March 30, 1918 from Newport News, Virginia aboard the U.S.S. Susquehanna, arriving at St. Nazaire, France on April 13, 1918. On September 26th three regiments of the 93rd American Division were ordered to attack from a position a few miles west of the Argonne Forest. On the 28th of September the 371st and the 372nd Infantry entered the lines as part of the Red Hand Division and attacked at once, advancing through murderous gunfire and gas.
On 11th of November 1918 an armistice between the Allies and Central Powers was reached ending the Great War. Lt. Charles Barclay would survive the war recovering from effects of mustard gas and return to his family and sign painting business in 1920 in New Haven. Like nearly all of the African American combat veterans that returned to America after the war, Barclay would start life afresh with the expectation that his service would contribute in some small part to creating a better world and better America.
Citizen soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives defending their country should be held in our country’s highest appreciation, but that was not always the case for African American soldiers. Lt Charles Barclay and the men of African heritage that served, fought and died in WWI for a country that sometimes did not love them back is indicative of the larger heartrending experience of African Americans in America. Despite the challenges faced during the Great War, a legacy of duty, service and honor would be established leading to the next generation of African heritage service. During WWII Lt Charles Barclay’s nephew, Air Cadet Alfred Steward Barclay would serve as a member of the famed Tuskegee Air Corp. Paying the ultimate sacrifice of giving his life in service to his country, he would embody the legacy of African American men and women in the Armed Services.