Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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African American Soldiers in WWI

  • Broadside, African American Soldiers during World War I, 1918
Published in 1918, this broadside celebrated the success of African American soldiers in combat during World War I.
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Broadside, African American Soldiers during World War I, 1918

This poster pays tribute to the contributions that African Americans made during World War I. It specifically references the success of the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black unit from New York and the first Allied soldiers to engage the Germans. The poster honors to this accomplishment with the inscription “Colored Men—The First Americans Who Planted Our Flag on the Firing Line.” The unit served a total of 191 days in combat, more than any other company. Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were the first Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre, awarded by the French in recognition of heroism during wartime. They were 2 of 171 members of the 369th Infantry to receive the award. The musicians in this unit, including James Reese Europe and Noble Sissle, were credited with introducing European audiences to jazz music. After being excluded from the regular parade of troops leaving New York City when they left for Europe, soldiers of the 369th Infantry were given a hero's welcome when they returned home on February 2, 1919. During the war, 200,000 African American served in combat, with a total of 380,000 serving in the overall war effort.

This poster was one of several commissioned by the Committee on Public Information, under the direction of George Creel. Produced in 1919 by Charles Gustrine of Chicago, the poster shows African American soldiers attacking German soldiers, some of whom are surrendering. The combatants are engaged in a close combat, and the black soldiers are on the offensive, using their bayonets and sidearms. This may be in tribute to the heroic feats of Corporal Johnson and Private Roberts, who engaged the Germans in hand-to-hand combat after depleting their ammunition. In the background of the image hovers a watchful and serene Abraham Lincoln, with the inscription “Liberty and Freedom Shall Not Perish” along with his signature. The quote is a paraphrase of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address of 1863.

Ironically, despite the imagery of heroism on behalf of democracy, African Americans, both in the military and on the home front, experienced significant levels of discrimination. The United States military was segregated, which was consistent with Jim Crow policies that existed throughout the country. At the outset of the war, W. E. B. DuBois, a leading African American intellectual, encouraged blacks to “close ranks” and support the war effort, but African American soldiers returned home to the same discrimination they had faced before the war.

For Educators

Questions

1. Who were the members of the 369th Infantry Regiment and what was their contribution to World War I?

2. What is the significance of Lincoln's image in this poster?

3. Why did the artist refer to these soldiers as the “True Sons of Freedom”?

Further Discussion

1. During World War I, African American leader W. E. B. DuBois called on African Americans to “close ranks” to support the war effort? What did he mean? What were the expectations? What gains, if any, were achieve by African Americans during the war effort?

2. The accomplishment of the 369th Infantry were impressive, but they were a part of a lengthier history of African American service to the U.S. military. Research and discuss the contributions of black soldiers during previous conflicts.

3. Contrast the dignified image of African American soldiers with earlier depictions of black men, especially the caricature of Jim Crow. How do the images differ? What accounts for their difference?

Links

"Teaching With Documents: Photographs of the 369th Infantry and African Americans during World War I." National Archives and Records Administration

Library of Congress Bibliographic Information-True Sons of Freedom

Suggested Reading

Harris, Stephen L. Harlem's Hell Fighters: The African American 369th Infantry in World War I. Brasseys, Inc., 2003.

Sutherland, Jonathan. African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia. 2 vols. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Inc., 2004.