1917-1918: WORLD WAR I

In 1917, the United States entered World War I.

Despite knowing that freedom to serve their country did not in itself guarantee fullparticipation in American society, thousands of black Americans answered the call to duty through service in the Army.

The Army operated under a policy of racial segregation and blacks were commonly relegated to supply and labor jobs. There were, however, active black combat units that made notable contributions.

Soldiers receive the Croix de Guerre, a prestigious military award of the French army. Since racist policies forbid African-American combat soldiers from carrying arms for the United States, thousands of black soldiers fought under the French flag. Courtesy photo New York Public Library).


On Dec. 27, 1917, the 369th Infantry Regiment became the first all-black U.S. combat unit to be shipped overseas during World War I.

The War Department initially sent the unit to Europe after a violent racial incident in Spartanburg, S.C., where the unit was planning to avenge the physical attack of their drum major, Noble Sissle.

Because there was no official combat role at this time for America’s black Soldiers, Gen. John J. Pershing responded to France’s request for troops by assigning the 369th (and the 93rd Division’s other regiments) to the French army.

The Germans dubbed the unit the “Hellfighters” because during 191 days of duty at the front, no men were captured nor ground taken. But almost one-third of the unit died in combat.

The French government awarded the entire regiment the Croix de Guerre. Sgt. Henry Johnson was the first black Soldier to win this prestigious award when he singlehandedly saved Pvt. Needham Roberts and fought off a German raiding party.

Members of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters relax aboard ship as they return home after World War I. Having helped to win the war in Europe, all would soon resume the struggle for freedom at home. Courtesy photo from Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.)


Dr. Wright

Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright, the son of a man born into slavery, graduated from Harvard University School of Medicine in 1915 with high honors. In 1917, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the medical section of the U.S. Army Officers Reserve Corps. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel during World War I.

Among his many pioneering efforts was the introduction of the injection method of the smallpox vaccine. This method was eventually adopted by the Army as a medical standard for Soldiers. In 1919, he became the first black physician appointed to the staff of a white hospital in New York.


Freddie Stowers

Freddie Stowers was cited for the Medal of Honor for his actions at Hill 188 Champagne Marne Sector, France, Sept. 28, 1918.

A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy’s actions caused the American forces to cease-fire and to come out into the open. When the company was within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Stowers’ company with interlocking bands of machine gun fire and mortar fire, causing well over 50 percent casualties.

Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward leading his squad toward an enemy machine gun nest.

After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine gun fire. Although Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died.