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