Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

African-American Soldiers in World War I: The 92nd and 93rd Divisions

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Painting of African American soldiers fighting German soldiers in World War I

Painting of African American soldiers fighting German soldiers in World War I, and head-and-shoulders portrait of Abraham Lincoln above.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The Crisis says, first your Country, then your Rights!

Certain honest thinkers among us hesitate at that last sentence. They say it is all well to be idealistic, but is it not true that while we have fought our country’s battles for one hundred fifty years, we have not gained our rights? No, we have gained them rapidly and effectively by our loyalty in time of trial."
—W.E.B. DuBois, from Buffalo Soldiers at Huachuca: Racial Awareness After the War on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Great War Primary Documents Archive

W.E.B. DuBois, an African American intellectual, whose call for racial equality marked him as a radical thinker in his era, strongly supported the war effort, but the patriotism of African American soldiers was not recognized or rewarded by white military commanders as they deserved.

For example, the public and private remarks of General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe, expose the often hypocritical attitudes toward African Americans among many white Americans in the early 20th century.

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, in a secret communiqué concerning African-American troops sent to the French military stationed with the American army, August 7, 1918, available on Stories to Tell: African Americans in the Military on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource National Park Service: Links to the Past

“I cannot commend too highly the spirit shown among the colored combat troops, who exhibit fine capacity for quick training and eagerness for the most dangerous work.” —General John J. Pershing, in Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War (Preface) on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Great War Primary Documents Archive

Despite institutionalized prejudice, hundreds of thousands of African Americans fought in the U.S. military during World War I. Even as most African Americans did not reap the benefits of American democracy—so central to the rhetoric of World War I—many still chose to support a nation that denied them full citizenship. What were their experiences in the service?

Late in 1917, the War Department created two all-black infantry divisions. The 93rd Infantry Division received unanimous praise for its performance in combat, fighting as part of France’s 4th Army. In this lesson, students combine their research in a variety of sources, including firsthand accounts, to develop a hypothesis evaluating contradictory statements about the performance of the 92nd Infantry Division in World War I.

Note: This lesson may be taught as a stand-alone lesson, as a sequel to the U.S. Entry into World War I: A Documentary Chronology and The Debate in the United States over The League of Nations curriculum units, and/or as a prequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson, African American Soldiers After World War I: Had Race Relations Changed?.

Guiding Questions

  • Why were African Americans so willing to fight, considering the discrimination they faced at home?
  • How were African Americans in combat affected by prejudice in American society?

Learning Objectives

  • Take a stand—supported with evidence—about the performance of the 92nd Division and the contradictory statements about it.
  • Discuss African-American attitudes toward serving in the military during World War I.
  • Discuss attitudes toward African Americans serving in the military during World War I.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • To put the military service of African Americans into historical context, this lesson would be most effective if taught after the students have studied World War I. If desired, this lesson may be taught after either or both of the complementary EDSITEment curriculum units U.S. Entry into World War I: A Documentary Chronology and The Debate in the United States over The League of Nations.
  • In this lesson’s central activity, students work in groups to complete research, largely from firsthand accounts provided in the lesson plan. Look over the materials. Create and assign groups accordingly.
  • For background on and context for African Americans during World War I, consult the following links from the EDSITEment reviewed resource Internet Public Library:
    • World War I and African Americans on Africana.com offers a concise but wide-ranging summary of conditions for African Americans before, during, and after World War I. The article briefly discusses such matters as:
      • The belief among African Americans that military service would lead, as W.E.B. DuBois said, to "the right to vote and the right to work and the right to live without insult."
      • The objections of some white Americans to drafting African Americans.
      • The history of African Americans in the military in the years prior to World War I.
      • The pressure exerted by the NAACP (and others) for the establishment of officer training for African Americans.
      • The increase in the migration of African Americans from the South to the North to take advantage of job opportunities in industry due to the wartime economy.
      • The history of African Americans in military service during World War I.
      • Conditions for African Americans after World War I.
        Some classes would benefit from reading the article as part of the lesson.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The 92nd Division

Model for the class the activity they are about to complete. Share the handout "What They Say About the 92nd: Selected Quotes" on pages 1-2 of the Master PDF. The quotes represent examples of statements students may encounter; some are quite specific, while others are more general. Spend only enough time on each to help students understand how to approach such material. Discuss:

  • What the quote says.
  • How the content might have been affected by bias.
  • Potential sources of bias.
  • Ways in which the four statements agree with and contradict one another.

Can we come to understand how participants "construct" their own experiences of events? Can we locate sources to support or contradict their perceptions? Can we determine how the 92nd Division performed in combat? Can we understand the factors affecting their performance? Students will explore these issues in small groups.

Divide the class into eight groups. Download, copy, and distribute to students the handout "The 92nd Division" on page 3 of the Master PDF. It provides basic background information on the 92nd Division, listing the units in each division, enabling students to identify by number the regiments, battalions, and batteries composing the 92nd. Students can refer to it as necessary when they are completing the activity below.

Each student group will be assigned one of the following sources to scout for information. By dividing up the research, the class will eventually become familiar with a variety of sources. As any one source could have a particular bias, students will be better able to judge the information and arrive at a conclusion about the 92nd when they share all the information.

  • Four groups can each scrutinize a relevant chapter from Scott’s Official History of The American Negro in the World War on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Great War Primary Documents Archive. According to African American Odyssey: World War I and Postwar Society, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, "Emmett J. Scott worked for eighteen years as the private secretary to Booker T. Washington. He became a Special Assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker during World War I in order to oversee the recruitment, training, and morale of the African American soldiers. (His) ‘profusely illustrated’ 512-page volume gives a ‘complete and authentic narration … of the participation of American soldiers of the Negro race in the World War for democracy,’ and a ‘full account of the war work organizations of colored men and women.’" His work was published in 1919 and is filled with firsthand accounts.
  • One group can gather information from the document 92nd Buffalo Division Summary of Operations in the World War on the U.S. Army Center of Military History, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. It is an extensive account told from a military point of view. This study, published by the United States Printing Office in 1944, was created by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which was established "by Congress in 1923 for the purpose of commemorating the services of American forces in Europe during the World War. In the accomplishment of this mission, the Commission has erected suitable memorials in Europe and improved and beautified the eight American cemeteries there. It has also published a book entitled ‘American Armies and Battlefields in Europe,’ which gives a concise account of the vital part played by American forces in the World War and detailed information regarding the memorials and cemeteries. In order that the actions of American troops might be accurately set forth, detailed studies were made of the operations of each division that had front-line battle service. In certain cases studies of sector service were also prepared. It is felt that the results of this research should now be made available to the public. Therefore, these studies are being published in a series of twenty-eight booklets, each booklet devoted to the operations of one division." (John J. Pershing, Chairman, The American Battle Monuments Commission)
  • Through African American Experience in Ohio, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, one group can search for newspaper articles and photographs about the 92nd. Using "92nd" as a search term, for example, yields 12 documents. Students can also search using terms and numbers from the handout "The 92nd Division" on page 3 of the PDF (see Preparing to Teach This Lesson, for download instructions). The home page of African American Experience in Ohio states, "This selection of manuscript and printed text and images drawn from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society illuminates the history of black Ohio from 1850 to 1920, a story of slavery and freedom, segregation and integration, religion and politics, migrations and restrictions, harmony and discord, and struggles and successes."
  • One group can review the section about the 92nd on Historic Context for the African-American Military Experience/World War I, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. The purpose of this extensive contemporary "theme and context study" by the Cultural Resources Research Center at the U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories (USACERL) in Champaign, Illinois, "is to recognize and highlight the contributions of African Americans to the military history of the United States by providing a historic context for the identification and preservation of buildings, objects, and archaeological sites related to that involvement."
  • One group can read accounts from eyewitnesses, in full or in part, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Great War Primary Documents Archive.

If desired, groups can compile a summary of their research and findings based on the questions in the handout "Research Questions: The 92nd Division" on page 4 of the Master PDF.

Student groups should now share their information with the entire class. Allow time after all the information has been shared for students to ask questions of each other. Then, give the groups time to meet again and compose a position statement on what can be learned from the first-hand sources, given their contradictions.

If desired, each group can then share its position statement and the most compelling evidence supporting it. Another option is to proceed with Assessment.

Activity 2. Why Did African Americans Fight?
WWI: Not That Long Ago

The following brief, optional activity, found here and in the complementary lesson African American Soldiers After World War I: Had Race Relations Changed?, provides some context.

To our students, World War I must seem quite distant. Yet the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Congress Link, reported that, as of May 2001, 2,503 veterans of World War I were still alive. A living link to that conflict remains, but it is vanishing. If desired, share with the class the chart with the heading "It is estimated that the number of living World War I veterans will be:" (last chart on the page) from the online publication America’s Wars, May 2001, available on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, for projections of the numbers of surviving World War I veterans until 2018.

African American Life in the Early Twentieth Century

The focus of this unit is the experience of African Americans who served in the military during World War I. For any students unaware of the conditions under which African-American civilians lived in the United States prior to the war, some background would be useful. Commonly accepted beliefs and practices of the day effectively limited the rights of African Americans. The videos listed below can be viewed on the computer and provide the briefest possible introduction.

Since the late 19th century, legal segregation was enforced in many places in the U.S., accompanied by frequent lynching as a means of enforcing white dominance. If desired, give students background on African Americans prior to World War I by sharing two online videos (each about two minutes long) from PBS’s Wilson—A Portrait/African Americans, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory.

Were such appeals likely to be effective? Share the following quote:

"I told him I was fighting for what the flag meant to the Negroes in the United States. I told him I was fighting because I wanted other oppressed people to know the meaning of democracy…

I told him that now is our opportunity to prove what we can do. If we can't fight and die in this war just as bravely as the white men, then we don't deserve equality with white men, and after the war we better go back home and forget about it all."
—A black lieutenant on the front to a New York Times correspondent, Buffalo Soldiers at Huachuca: Racial Awareness After the War on the EDSITEment reviewed website Great War Primary Documents Archive

That’s one man’s idealistic stance. Was his attitude prevalent? Share the following quote from W.E.B. DuBois:

"The Crisis says, first your Country, then your Rights!

Certain honest thinkers among us hesitate at that last sentence. They say it is all well to be idealistic, but is it not true that while we have fought our country’s battles for one hundred fifty years, we have not gained our rights? No, we have gained them rapidly and effectively by our loyalty in time of trial."

African Americans did answer their country’s call, with perhaps 700,000 eventually considered for eligibility. According to African American Odyssey: World War I and Postwar Society on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory:

More than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor. In response to protests of discrimination and mistreatment from the black community, several hundred African American men received officers' training in Des Moines, Iowa. By October 1917, over six hundred African Americans were commissioned as captains and first and second lieutenants.

Scott’s Official History of The American Negro in the World War, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Great War Primary Documents Archive, reports anecdotes about and comments from African Americans, testimonials from others, as well as statistics that reveal the eagerness of African Americans to serve their country despite any prejudice they may have experienced. In particular, interested students should consult CHAPTER XXIX—Negro Loyalty and Morale for more on why African Americans were so willing to serve.

The 93rd Division: Unqualified Success

Give students the opportunity to view the online video In the Trenches (low) or In the Trenches (high) on PBS’s Wilson—A Portrait/African Americans, a link from the EDSITEment reviewed website American Memory. The video centers on the 93rd Division and its overwhelming success serving in a detached status with the French Army. The 92nd, the other segregated division, remained with the American forces. Differences in first-hand accounts about its performance are the basis of the activities in Part 2, below.

NOTE: If you are unable to share the online videos with students, the following images provide some of the same information:

  • From the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital Classroom:
    • Honoring men about to leave: African-American women open a club for their men in the service, Newark, New Jersey. Shows some of the home front support given to the war effort.
    • Negroes enroll for officer's training camp: Photograph shows Negroes enlisting at the African American Young Men's Christian Association for the Negro Officers' Training Camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. A. Merrill Willis (sitting) was the first man to enlist. African Americans saw entry into the military as a way of advancing the cause of justice and proving they could serve in leadership positions, given the opportunity.
    • Has eleven sons in service: Ike Sims of Atlanta, Georgia, 87 years old, has eleven sons in the service. Shows the willingness of African Americans to participate.
    • Celebrations for soldiers: African-American troops leaving, with proud and adoring onlookers, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
    • Machine gun instruction: African-American soldiers' camp in France, 1918. There were questions about the quality of the training for African Americans in the United States. The soldiers who fought with the French fared very well.
  • From the EDSITEment-reviewed website Great War Primary Documents Archive:

For more on the 93rd Division, see the second bulleted item under the Extending the Lesson section.

Assessment

Make available to the class the position statements prepared by all student groups in Part 2. Ask students to write in support of one position statement or to offer support for a differing statement of their own. If possible, allow access to the material the groups read. Remind students to use specific evidence for support. Statements should reflect on the following:

  • How the various participants "constructed" their own experiences of events.
  • How the available sources support or contradict their perceptions.
  • Our ability to determine how the 92nd Division actually performed in combat.
  • The factors affecting the performance of the 92nd.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • MMS (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media