Lesson Plan

African-American Soldiers After World War I: Had Race Relations Changed?

24th Infantry Reg. (Negro) in Mexico, 1916: Major Charles Young and Capt. John R. Barber.
Photo caption

Major Charles Young and Captain John R. Barber, members of the African American 24th Infantry Regiment in Mexico, 1916.

"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 

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

“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).

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 back home when the war was over?

In this lesson, students view archival photographs, combine their efforts to comb through a database of more than 2,000 archival newspaper accounts about race relations in the United States, and read newspaper articles written from different points of view about post-war riots in Chicago.

Guiding Questions

To what extent did WWI affect race relations in the United States?

Learning Objectives

Examine the political and social conditions of African Americans before and after WWI.

Analyze primary sources to determine point of view and evaluate change over time.

Use evidence from a variety of texts to construct a response to the GQ.