Going Over The Top: Hail the Conquering Heroes. Some of them, anyway

By David Flin

Charles Lewis was glad to be home. He’d been one of the 380,000 black soldiers who had served in the US Army during the First World War, and now the war was over, and he was back home. It was the night of 15 December, 1918, in the small town of Tyler Station, Kentucky.

A police officer stormed into his home, accused him of a robbery, and dragged him outside. Lewis was in his uniform, and demanded the rights due to a soldier. This was regarded as challenging white authority, and very soon a crowd of around 100, including several police officers, had gathered. They decided that a black soldier was “an abomination”, and that there was only one justice available to an uppity black challenging white authority.

He was hanged on a nearby tree, and in the morning, crowds came to view the lynched body. Newspaper reports suggest that some in the crowd had themselves a picnic at the scene.

No-one knows how many black soldiers returning to America were lynched. The returning soldiers were, as a rule, treated badly on their return, especially in the South and in West Virginia (where there was a fear that they would take jobs from white workers).

When the USA declared war in April 1917, the Selective Service Act was quickly passed by Congress. This authorised President Woodrow Wilson to raise a volunteer infantry force of four divisions. Approximately 2,291,000 black Americans volunteered, and in many cases explained that they did so because they wanted to prove their patriotism as Americans. Letters and documents attest that there was a strong feeling that this was a chance for them to prove that they were Real Americans. Of these, around 380,000 were drafted, the vast majority into the Army. The Marines and the United States Air Force did not accept blacks, and the United States Navy only offered menial positions. Around 367,000 blacks joined the US Army. Of these 200,000 went to France, but only 42,000 classified as combat troops.

The New York National Guard's 369th Regiment, 93rd Infantry Division, also known as the "Harlem Hellfighters", stand ready in trenches near Maffrecourt in the Argonne Region, France, May 04, 1918. (Courtesy of the Kentucky National Guard)

These black combat troops were completely segregated. Segregated to the extent that they were separated into two divisions (the 92nd and the 93rd), and the 93rd Division fought under the command of the French Army rather than the American Army.

As a result, soldiers from the 93rd Division frequently came into contact with North and West African soldiers in the French Army, and observed the difference in attitudes towards these soldiers and the attitudes they had experienced from white Americans. Black soldiers received a warm welcome from French civilians. One soldier wrote: “They treated us with respect, not like the white American soldiers.” Another, Lemuel Moody, wrote: “The experience was altogether improving and broadening. It changed my outlook on life. I see things now with different eyes.”

The American military authorities saw things in a certain light. Colonel E Anderson, Chairman of the Army’s Operation Branch, wrote in November 1918: “The negro has not the mental stamina and moral sturdiness to put him in the line opposing German troops who consist of men of high average education.”

The French military authorities saw things in a different light. They awarded the whole of the 369th Regiment a Croix de Guerre for its combat performance, which included 191 days constantly in the front line. As a side note, the Regiment contained a world-class jazz band, with some of the top musicians in its ranks, and the Regiment (known as the Harlem Hellfighters) is credited by some of popularising jazz to the citizens of France.

"Some of the colored men of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action." Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor. 1998 print. Records of the War Department General and Special. Staffs.

While the black American soldiers fought in France, the situation in America was not one of increasing racial tolerance. On 7th June, 1918, Robert Benchley wrote an article for Tribune Graphic praising African American regiments on the Western Front. As part of this, he included a photograph of soldiers from the 169th infantry, a black regiment that had distinguished itself, and two of whom had been awarded the Croix de Guerre. As the page was being made up, he added another picture, of the lynching of a black man in Georgia, being witnessed by a large crowd treating it as an entertainment. He then wrote a caption calling for racial tolerance.

The page went to press, and the first copy went upstairs. Benchley’s son, Nathaniel Benchley, later described what happened next. “The page hadn’t been upstairs more than three minutes when … the presses ground to an emergency stop.” He went on to explain that Ogden Reid, the Editor-in-Chief, had stopped production, and that the lynching photograph had to be replaced. Reid said that the lynching picture was “pro-German propaganda”, that it was lies, that lynching was no longer an issue.

Over in France, on the Western Front, the black Divisions fought, and the over-arching impression one gets from their letters home is that they were fighting to prove themselves, to earn acceptance as American citizens. Over and over and over again one comes across phrases like: “Our blood helped win us our freedom, now it will help us win acceptance”; “We’re fighting for our dignity back home”; “Now we can hold our head high back home.”

There was a feeling that the courage and sacrifice would have been repaid. There was a feeling of optimism.

African American being stoned by whites during 1919 Chicago race riot

In December 1918, over 70 blacks were lynched, at least a dozen of them returned soldiers. At the start of 1919, anti-Black race riots exploded in at least 26 cities in the USA. Chicago, Savannah, Charleston, Washington DC, St Louis, and others, to say nothing of countless attacks in small towns across the country. The list is depressing. In Bisbee, Arizona, local police attacked and lynched members of the 10th US Cavalry; in Charleston, South Carolina, US sailors attacked a black clinic, killing a doctor and 3 patients. An investigation by the US Navy concluded that in all probability, the fight was started by the blacks in the clinic, and no further action needed to be taken. During riots in Washington DC, police refused to stop attacks on blacks, and eventually, after four days, the National Guard was called out. In Indianapolis, Indiana, riots broke out after white “vigilantes” used a 7-year-old black girl as target practise. Twenty-five blacks and zero whites were arrested as a result of the riots. Rioting in Chicago burned the homes of 1000 black families, with 58 fatalities.

In October 1919, whites in Elaine, Arkansas massacred hundreds of black people in response to sharecroppers trying to organise. No-one knows how many were killed. No-one counted.

In Norfolk, Virginia, a mob attacked a homecoming parade for returning black soldiers. Six black soldiers were shot, and two died as a result. Local police refused to intervene, and US Marines had to be called in to restore order.

The list goes on, and went on all through 1919. From out of this came a feeling among many African Americans that they had contributed to America, that they had done their part, and more, and that they were being denied a position. Organisations dedicated to advancing their cause sprang up, run by African Americans for African Americans. Organisations such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) were formed with the specific objective of providing them with a voice, and to organise and coordinate efforts.

Perhaps the final word on the returning black soldiers should come, not from America, but from Paris. Specifically, 14 July, 1919, and the first Bastille Day after the war. It was a landmark celebration, and soldiers from all over marched down the Champs Elysées. From France, Senegal, Algeria, Britain, India, Australia, Canada, Nepal, and countless other countries. Obviously, included in the march were representatives from the American forces who fought in France. General John Pershing marched at the head of nearly 2000 officers and men who had fought in France in the AEF. Men who had fought in France. Of those who were involved, precisely zero were African Americans. General Pershing decided that the easiest way to ensure that segregation of the representatives was maintained was to ensure that no black soldiers were included. He said that their inclusion would be an insult to the “real” soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow