Amanda Nagel PhD, Assistant Professor of Military History at the School of Advanced Military Studies, US Army Command and General Staff College, talks about African-American Servicemen during the Great War.



DR Tom Thorpe [TT]: Welcome to mentioned in dispatches the podcast in the Western Front association with me. Dr. Tom Thorpe. The WFA is the UK's largest Great War History Society. We are dedicated to furthering understanding of the first world war and have over 60 branches  worldwide. Information visit our website at Western Front  It is the 21st of October 2019. And this is episode 133. On this week's podcast. Dr. Amanda Nagel assistant professor of military history at the school of advanced military studies at the US Army Command and General Staff College talks about African American servicemen during the Great War.  Amanda, welcome to the dispatches podcast. I wonder if you would start by telling  us. How  became interested in the Great War  

Amanda Nagel (AN) : Well, That’s a great question. My interest started far back when I was working on my Bachelors. Initially I was just interested in Africa American soldiers in the Civil War and World War II. One of my projects, my final project, at my institution - was basically, kind of an honour’s thesis thing. Just a finalised 20 page paper on a research project on - a topic of our choice. So I chose, stupidly, to do - a comparative study because you know the worst thing I could have possibly picked but I chose to study the 54th, Massachusetts and the 332nd fighter regiment.  So Civil War and World War II. And as I was starting to talk to some of my advisors - as I was moving into graduate school - one of them suggested that I look toward World War One, because at that point, interest in African American soldiers in World War One hadn't really been as covered in the scholarship. And of course, since then it's been -  it's become quite a field. But as soon as they said something like, um, that's really interesting -  and then I started looking  into World War one and thinking about well, why aren't we talking about the Great War? Why does the United States ignore this conflict? Because it is so formative to what happens for the rest of the 20th century - that -  it's the foundation really - and so that's - from there -  I just kind of kept going at it at it, and going at it -  and then of course once I once they reached my PhD institution, I got to work with Sue Graysel and her work on British - British Women in World War One and so that kind of cemented my interest - and kept me going with the Great War.  

TT: Now today. We're going to talk about African-American servicemen during the Great War. I wonder whether we could start by -  giving us the political status - a bit of background, on the political status of African-Americans in America. And also what their military service was from the Civil War up to the First World War?

AN: So let's start with the background service first, before we get into the political context of the period. People typically start -  with thinking about African American soldiers in the Civil War. However, African-Americans had served in - a form of American Army since the American Revolution. We had an entire regiment to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment devoted to African-Americans. You also had both enslaved and Free Blacks fighting throughout the Continental Army and for some of these militias. So this is a very long tradition of service. You see also - service in the War of 1812. And so by the time we get to the Civil War, the Army - the Union Army is not taking in African-Americans initially - until the Militia Act of July of 1862. OK. So this is about when the strategic context is shifting for the United States - we are moving toward the Emancipation Proclamation. And so the Militia Act of July of 1862 will provide a few regiments for African-Americans to  volunteer for service.

So as these volunteers - are compiled it will create what's called the United States Colored Troops or the USCT. So by January of 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation, there were three USCT Regiments in existence. We have one from the state of Louisiana, and this regiment actually had all  lieutenants and captains as African-Americans as well. This is the first time we have officers for these regiments. Now there was one one regiment from Kansas and one from South Carolina. At this point in 1863. We see patient Proclamation leading the war department to authorise recruitment for African-American. So then by the time the Civil War ends the USCT will represent roughly 10% of Union Forces, but after the war the USCT will be disbanded, demobilised - and from that we will end up with four regular army regiments - by 1869. So these are the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments.  

So from there, many of them will serve in the American West throughout the 1860s, 1870s, 1880s and into the 1890s. By that point we have the Spanish-American War - with Spain over Cuba; you'll have both - all four of those regiments as well a number of volunteer regiments that are created. And so this will also include the 9th Volunteer Infantry,  the 8th, Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 23rd Kansas Volunteer Regiment. Those three are the only volunteer regiments African-American soldiers who will serve in Cuba. The rest are men who will serve in Cuba from the 9th and 10th and 24th and 25th. The rest of the men who serve in Cuba, and from there they will serve again in the Philippines and will continue to serve up until World War One. 

By this point, until we get to 1917 and the United States starts thinking about joining the Great War. This is a point where the political context - in terms of equality, citizenship, rights has shifted significantly for African Americans from 1865.  

So in the aftermath of the Civil War you have the three - what are called the Civil Rights - it is kind of considered the Civil Rights Amendments. So the 13th Amendment - abolishing slavery; the 14th Amendment - which recognises citizenship for anyone born on US soil - regardless of previous condition of servitude, colour, creed, religion and all of that. Then the 15th Amendment provides voting rights for African American men.  

Well in the meantime, we have various laws that are popping up not just in Southern States, but in Northern States as well - attempting to limit the rights of African-Americans as they are becoming free essentially. And so - they get the phrase -  they will eventually receive the phrase ‘Jim Crow’. And so that comes out of the Jumping Jim Crow song and caricature - those performed in the Ante-bellum era  by white actors in blackface. 

Now the laws themselves restrict rights -  voting rights, economic rights -  just about anything you can imagine. So frequently it's seeking to control movement, bodies, economic possibilities. When these types of laws begin after emancipation -  they're called the Black Codes. And they vary from state to state, some are more severe than others, but they strengthened after reconstruction ends in 1877. They're finally solidified with the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. And so, in this context, politically, African-Americans in the US, can have a variety of rights - depending on which state they're in. Frequently Southern States are going to be harsher with the laws - and we have what's called De Facto Segregation versus De Jure Segregation - so Jim Crow would be the De Jure segregation. Whereas in Northern States frequently it was De Facto segregation - as in segregation by custom rather than by law. 

Now in terms of the political status again, rights of varied from State to State and access to those rights varied. 

So what we see in the aftermath of the Civil War - and particularly with the 1890s is that a new generation Born Free - and that makes a huge difference in terms of the way in which African Americans will advocate for rights - and try to push back against these laws, even as they're cemented in1896 with the with Plessey vs. Ferguson. 

So there's a lot of activism going on - and part of my work that discusses this time period, before the Great War, shows how African-American soldiers in the Spanish American War and Philippine-American War are finding Avenues through military service to try to push for those rights - and you'll even see a number of them, particularly from - the Kansas Regiment that I'd mentioned, the 23rd - who return back to the United States and become politicians themselves within their communities.

So they're constantly thinking about rights. They're constantly thinking about civil liberties and the ways in which this is all happening. You add in this is also part of a progressive era where there are new ideas about what a good citizen is - and who a good citizen is. And so there's this emphasis on ‘duty to the country’ - that every citizen, especially good citizens are active: they're taking part in politics. They are, you know -  they're helping their community - giving back. But they're also - in a time of need - sacrificing their lives for the country. And so that's part of the context in terms of how African-Americans are pushing back. 

You also have people like Ida B Wells who's speaking out against lynching. You also have, in 1909, the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - and various other rights organisations that focus on this. So, even though we are seeing restriction across the board in a lot of states, there are attempts - frequently and consistently - to push back against that and to try to expand rights for African-Americans.  

TT: So since so many African Americans are seeing military service as a way of actually gaining political rights as their service to their country means that they have the equal rights because they are making them many in some cases the ultimate sacrifice for the wider state. 

AN: Some things that I am writing about and particularly my idea of military citizenship, what they have been doing is to use their service and their time in uniform to access rights that they don’t have as civilisations and as they muster out bring those rights back to their civilian lives to expand it to their communities at large. 

TT: So we reach What happens in World War  one, obviously. Get involved. They declared war in April 1917. Now, what's the Army built through volunteers or was it built through conscription? And what was the role of African Americans today? Did they join up or were they conscripted? 

AN: So - we have a mix. Prior to an entry in April of 1917. There were approximately 12,500 African-American soldiers enlisted.  And the -  this was the composition of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and  the 24th and 25th Infantry. 

Now, they obviously volunteered - and you will see others volunteering as well. But what we see is that the majority of African-Americans who will serve are actually drafted - so over 1 million African-Americans will take part in the draft - and this is out of - roughly 24 million total Americans who will register Under the Selective Service Act of May 1917. 

And that was mainly because - within the first month of American involvement in the Great War, President Wilson was very concerned because not enough men were enlisting and thought essentially volunteering between the declaration of war on April 6. And then the time the Selective Service Act went into effect in May. And so, his concern was, of course, are we going to fight this massive war we need more men. So for the most part - there are over 1 million African-Americans who put their names in for - for you know, they register for the Selective Service Act - and approximately 370,000 of those - over 1 million - will be drafted into the American Expeditionary Forces. And that's the section of the Army that serves on the Western Front in Europe. 

TT: Obviously the American expeditionary Force arrives in Europe in  1917. And The conditions of service for African-American soldiers? Were they in segregated or mix units and did they serve in combat roles? 

AN: So they are mostly in segregated units -  I mean that they are segregated from white enlisted - and other white draftees. However, many of them had white officers.  Now, the 92nd Division was officered almost entirely by African-Americans.  Whereas the 93rd Division will have white officers - for the most part. And when I say for the 92nd division mostly officered by African-Americans that’s up until Captain. Above that you don't really have any Majors or Lieutenant-Colonels or anyone of a higher rank than that. 

TT: So where do these units serve in France?

AN: So for the most part, they're approximately in the same area. They're going to be in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive - the Argonne Forest specifically for the 93rd Division and Chateux-Theirry. Now, the 93rd division will be attached to the French army. Whereas the 92nd division will still remain under the command and control of the US. They will serve alongside French Units, but command and control wise the 92nd will be under the US for command control - whereas the 93rd is almost entirely  under French control - completely and utterly. They will fight alongside French soldiers, they'll be retrained by the French - and they will also be equipped and uniformed by the French. 

TT: What was their experience of I suppose working with the French may be working with the British and also under their own commanders in France?

AN: So their experience is - what we see with their experience with the French is going to  influence how they returned home not just French officers, but even French citizens will view African-American soldiers as American. There's no - hyphenate - for that for them: they are American. 

And therefore, they're here to help - right. And so for France, that's of course a very interesting dynamic because … the French will also have Colonial African soldiers taking part in the war as well.  And those soldiers will not be treated anywhere near what we see American soldiers treated as - from the French. But for the most part they're going to experience a variety of interactions with officers. 

And so of course, you're going to have some who will treat them poorly because of the colour of their skin and the assumptions associated with that - whereas in other cases, not so much -  where you'll  actually have - the focus on - what their capabilities are, like what they can actually do on the battlefield; how successful at least the 93rd division will become - and that. So you'll end up with a number of men from I believe it's the 369th who will earn the Croix de Guerre -  for their service in World War One

TT: How effective were these units? I mean, this is almost an impossibly difficult question to answer - and on and how. Let me rephrase it. How were they regarded by French commanders British commanders in terms of combat performance because you know again that's such a subjective thing. But it's interesting just to get - to see whether the perceptions of service actually tackled racial perceptions that many of these officers may have had.

AN: Absolutely, and that's one of the things of the meuse Argonne offensive is a great case study to compare how the French and the British and the US will view - the 93rd the 92nd Division So remember the 92nd Division had mostly black officers, whereas the 93rd Division - that was actually made up of National Guard Units. So the 92nd Division is mostly draftees. Whereas the 93rd had National Guards and officers by whites.  So what we see with Meuse-Argonne, it's that stark contrast between how the 92nd division will perform and how that performance will be received - versus how the 93rd division will do. So, again for the 92nd - they're going to remain under U.S. Command and control, whereas the 93rd Division is entirely under the French.

Now the French were far more forthcoming with clear orders and objectives to officers in the 93rd. The US controlled Divisions - and this is across the board, this is not just the 92nd Division - this is across the board for any US controlled division. They were left more or less in the dark when it came to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. There's an attempt to keep this as secret as possible -  and that means not providing proper information to the men who are about to go and attempt to seize the objective that  has been outlined. 

For the 93rd this meant success. So the 93rd consisted of the 370th 371st and a 372nd Infantry Regiment.  Now, it was never really officially formed as a full division because it never received any of the other supporting regiments that would be necessary to complete a division. But in any event these three regiments fought alongside the French 157th Division on September 26, 1918. And so the 371st is going to experience the heaviest action. So what ends up happening at the start of the offensive is the 371st are going to be sent in to fill a gap between the 161st   French Division and the 2nd Moroccan Division. In doing so they could actually press forward - and so by September 28th their attack on the German position results in what initially seemed like success. Because, within a few minutes of the attack the Germans quickly surrendered. Or so, they thought the Germans jumped back quickly into the trenches and they opened fire. And so the 371st never stopped fighting - they kept going and eventually forced a German retreat and essentially achieved their objective. 

Now flip that for the 92nd division, they have far more difficulty achieving their objectives in the same offensive. So, specifically the 368th - so for the 92nd Division, they are composed of the 365th, 366th, 367th and 368th Infantry Divisions. Now the 368th on September 26th  were ordered to attack. They were not given any artillery support - whatsoever. Nor did they have the enough cutters for the barbed wire - so pretty quickly this organisation and miscommunication took hold. Within two days it's mostly chaos and confusion - so on December 28th when the 371st is actually doing quite well, in their sector, the 368th is just chaotic and confused. 

There's a constant back and forth between the unit and commanding officers behind the lines as to whether or not they should advance or withdraw. Part of what ends up going wrong here is that the French Fourth Army and the 308 infantry of the 77th AEF Division will collapse - despite making some progress the 368th were ordered on September 30th to withdraw. So the very next day Colonel James Moss of the 367th will collect all of his Black Officers and NCOs to tell them that the 368th failed in the mission - and therefore African-American officers were considered a failure.

What we see here is the kind of this mask contrast between these two regiments - and it's used more so to discredit the entire Division - and not just the 92nd Division, but all African-American soldiers because there is this almost this claim - that Blackness equated to incompetence. And in some cases this is just a way to reinforce ideas that were held prior to US entry into the Great War. 

So to  give you some idea of what I mean here -  in 1916 we have 1915 and 1916. We have a number of bills that are put forth attempting to increase the size of the US Army. This includes the National Defence Act of 1916. Part of the debate in Congress was whether or not African-American soldiers were capable of performing the duties that would be assigned to them. That becomes a point of contention. And so, you actually do have - and this is quite surprising - two Senators from Mississippi - one just as racist as the other on two different sides of this argument. One James K. Vardaman who said “No. Absolutely, not African Americans should not, nor can they possibly be adequate soldiers”.  Also, what if they became trained in self-defence and then brung that training home to Mississippi after the war.

Also, this is Ian Vardemin’s opinion. What if there is a President of the United States who is ignorant -  I think would be the way in which to describe -  is ignorant of the social and cultural structure of the South - and would take one of these regiments, of African-Americans, to then occupy the South and deny rights to white Americans. That was, you know, that was how he viewed it - and part of this argument. But of course it lay within this idea that African-American could not possibly be competent soldiers. 

But then on the flip-side, you had Senator John Sheriff Williams, also of Mississippi, who said regardless of what you think of African-Americans, they are citizens of the United States and you cannot tell them they cannot register and enlist in the United States Army. Because they have every right to do so as a citizen. 

So this is a debate that has been going on for a couple of decades, actually. It was something that was considered in the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War and even before then. This idea is that even though there's this tradition of military service among African-Americans in the United States - that somehow with every conflict - it's forgotten almost, or ignored. I guess it would be the better way to describe that. This history is ignored. This rich history of success in capability on the battlefield. 

TT: How was the service of black soldiers viewed once the Armistice had been called? 

AN: so, this is quite interesting …. Twist. Now, the 369th they name will be the Harlem Hell Fighters as many of them, It was a National Guard unit from New York. They would return to the City of New York with a parade. There was quite a violent response to some African American soldiers as they returned home

For many what will happen, is that instead of returning to live in the United States black veterans will either asked to be discharged in France or once they come back to the United States and are discharged. Or they will move back to France - because they experienced better racial relations - that are conditions than they ever had in the United States. 

Tyler Stovall’s ‘Paris Noir’ is a great study of what happens after the war for African-Americans who move to France. Now there are going to be others, who when they return - because the focus that the United States Army has an education - they will return more educated, with new perspectives, than when they left home. So they're going to have confidence and this experience in soldiering behind them. So they'll come home especially with a new air that they did not have when they left. They now have - at least some education that they did not have access to prior to service. That they think -  they've spoken to people from other areas of the nation -  and really other parts of the world. And so they have a new perspective - as they returned home. 

You'll have people who come back and focus on activism. So for instance Charles Hamilton Houston, he was one of the officers that will be commissioned in Des Moines, Iowa at the officer training campus set aside for African-Americans. He was the first lieutenant in the 92nd Division - and he will come back to the United States. He will attend Harvard Law School, become the Dean of Howard University's School of Law and while there he will mentor Thurgood Marshall - the lawyer most well known for arguing the Brown vs. Board Case, 1954 to end segregation in schools. Thurgood Marshall will also be a Supreme Court Justice -  in the end. But Houston will become a lawyer for the  NAACP and really focus on these sorts of things. 

And so you have this mix of how people are going to return. We also have race riots - and what's referred to as ‘Red Summer’ -  the summer of 1919 - dozens of race riots across the United States - hundreds of people will die in the violence - and it's in this resurgence of nativism - and racism that exists in the US prior to the war - but it's ramped up almost during the war effort itself. 

And this also happens to coincide with the rise - I should say there re-rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which is growing and getting stronger in the late 1910s - And so on top of that you have a few lynchings that will occur in 1919 of African-American veterans. And at least one soldier who was on furlough during this time. So roughly - the numbers we have are not necessarily accurate - but there are I believe 18 or 19 documented lynchings. And I say, I believe, because we only have documentation for some of them - and probably there were countless others that were not necessarily documented. But for the ones documented even, we also only have the names for a few of them. Because somewhere like a soldier who is a veteran who was from Mississippi - all that appeared in the newspaper was African American soldier from Pickens, Mississippi lynched - in about two sentences. It did not even include his name.  

So, these are the sorts of things that are going to be part of what happens when they return. 

And so I'm sure you can see that is part of why that renewed activism in the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance - and really the frustration that we see in the art, the poetry, the writings of Harlem Renaissance artists are going to be very much focused on this frustration of fighting a war to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ when coming home and being denied it. 

TT: Do you think this the experience of service in the AEF for many African-American soldiers actually had long-term political and social consequences - which, in a way, fed into the Civil Rights movements of the 50s and 60s?

AN: Absolutely, so -  if anyone is interested in a book on … looking at the long civil rights movement, I highly recommend Glenda Gilmore Defying Dixie. it is a fantastic study of post-world war one - moving into the 1920s 1930s and All the way to the 1950s looking at this sort of thing. There are plenty of other scholars who are also writing about this as well - Adriane Lentz-Smith wrote a book called ‘Freedom struggles African-Americans in World War One’. 

Yes - to I guess - to put it very bluntly. Yes. 

This will have an impact upon the ways in which many of not only these men but also African-American civilians who do not go overseas - view not just the war effort but the idea that military service - and what this - what this can bring to the community - will be important for the Civil Rights struggle. 

I mean, you can see the legacy of that when we look at World War II and the Double V Campaign. That is a heavy focus on - we're going to have victory abroad but also victory at home against racism, bigotry.persecution, subjugation, right? All of that.

TT: People take -  they learn the lessons from the First World War - and ensure that their sacrifice and their service is not forgotten.

AN:  Absolutely, yes. And so you even see - in the aftermath of the Great War - Emmett J. Scott, who is the Special Assistant Secretary to the Secretary of War in the War - so he also happens to be African-American. He is going to write a history of African-Americans in the Great War. He does quite the job compiling information and documentation about the war effort - and about - African-American service in the war, itself. And so there's - a lot going on that - in the aftermath of the war - to try to make sure that - what happens with the Spanish-American War does not happen with World War One.

So, what I mean, there - what I'm referring to there, is the focus in the Spanish-American War on Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders as being the big victors of San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill, when in fact you actually have, one of the African-American units, the 10th Cavalry taking a huge part in capturing Kettle Hill - but that part of the story is - is kind of muddled - and,  kind of pushed off to the side.  

And so, there's definitely - this attempt with World War One to ensure that the legacy - that that memory will be held on - even if it's even just for the African-American Community initially - and then it'll spread beyond that - but the emphasis to your record, I think is very important. 

TT: And finally Amanda, where can people learn more about this subject and your research. 

AN: Well this subject, I have already mentioned a couple of books that I would recommend, definitely Adriane Lentz- Smith, Freedom Struggles - that one was crucial when I was working on my dissertation. I would also recommend Chad Williams ‘Torchbearers of Democracy: African American soldiers in the World War One Era’. It's a fantastic study on this same subject - and, for my own work - I’m in the process of having an article peer-reviewed. I don't know exactly when it will appear, but it is - in the works - I don't know if I'm allowed to say which journal it is. I don't know if that's kosher or not.  

TT: Okay, that's fine. That's fine. Well, we look forward to reading that in due . So Amanda. Thank you very much for your time. 

AN: Absolutely, thank you so much, Tom.

Books Mentioned Reviewed for The Western Front Association:

Adriane Lentz-Smith (2011) Freedom Struggles - African Americans in World War One.  

Chad Williams (2010) Torchbearers of Democracy, African American Soldiers in World War 1 Era.

Tyler Stovall : (1997) Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. 

Emmett J Scott  (1919) ‘The American Negro in The World War’.

Ely Green (1968) Too Black, Too White

Addie W Hutton and Kathryn M Johnson (1997): Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces

Additional Books or Authors mentioned:

Glenda Gilmore (2009) Defining Dixie. Post World War One to the 1950s. 

Susan Grayzel (2017) Gender and the Great War

Susan Grayzel : (1999) Women's Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War.