The debate over African American military service

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Under the banner of making the world “safe for democracy,” President Woodrow Wilson pledged America’s resources to “bring peace and safety to all the nations and make the world itself at last free.” However, for many African Americans, Wilson’s words were empty, offensive, and downright criminal. How could the President of the United States promote democracy abroad while still firmly clinging to Jim Crow segregation at home?  African American intellectuals such as A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, and Kelly Miller publicly opposed Wilson and the participation of African Americans in a war. Yet, there were those who believed that service on behalf of the nation, especially in its time of need, would benefit African Americans and their ongoing quest to achieve full-citizenship rights and privileges.

As early as 1915, Du Bois wrote most lucidly about the impact of World War I on the darker peoples of the world and how their futures were bound to be shaped by the outcome of the European conflict. In The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Du Bois used his editorial pen to demand on behalf of the American Negro the right to serve as soldiers and officers on the battlefields of Europe. He believed that during America’s time of need, African Americans needed to demonstrate their “unfaltering loyalty” to realize the “larger finer objects of this world battle.”[1] In a very famous editorial that he would later regret writing, Du Bois urged African Americans to put their “special grievances” aside and “close ranks” with white Americans for the duration of the crisis.[2]

Ike Sims of Atlanta, Georgia, 87 years old, has eleven sons in the service (1).jpg

Ike Sims of Atlanta, Georgia, 87 years old, has eleven sons in the service.

While all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one were required to register for the draft under the terms of the Selective Service Act, which had been enacted on May 18, 1917 shortly after the United States’ declaration of war, black men made up the bulk of draftees in some southern towns. Local draft boards denied African American men the draft exemptions typically given to fathers and men who were the single source of income for their families. Moreover, unhealthy black men not fit for service were sent to training camps, while healthy, unattached white males stayed home as a result of the local draft boards fraudulently identifying black residents as the most qualified for service.[3] In Atlanta, the Fulton County draft board shamelessly identified 85% of white draftees exempt from service, while only 3% of drafted African Americans qualified for exempt status.[4]

Yet this unfortunate discrimination opened a floodgate of opportunities that could not have been anticipated. The fact that African American men were able to claim their manhood publicly through military service challenged and changed how they viewed themselves as men and as citizens, as well as how they viewed the possibilities for future opportunities. The Baltimore-based Afro-American argued for the participation of black men in the war effort, going so far as to claim that the global conflict was the “greatest opportunity for the colored man since the Civil War.”[5] Although hard to conceive of at the time, the United States was on the verge of long overdue changes to the body politic.

-Pellom McDaniels III, Ph.D

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[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Editorial,” The Crisis, 14, 2 (June 1917): 60.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Editorial” The Crisis, 16, 3 (July 1918): 111.

[3] See Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri, The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I, (Philadelphia 1974): 34-38; and Chad Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era, (Chapel Hill 2010): 52-58.

[4]  Williams, 55.

[5] “War Secretary Approves Negro Officers Camp,” The Afro American (19 May 1917): 1.

Text adapted from:

McDaniels III, Pellom: African American Soldiers (USA) , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08. DOI10.15463/ie1418.10175.

The debate over African American military service

Historical Contexts