Colored Officers Training Camp at Fort Des Moines

While black soldiers relegated to the Services of Supply (SOS) served as the muscle needed to transform America’s potential military force into a state of readiness on the ground, a great experiment was underway at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, the site of the Colored Officers Training Camp (COTC). These men were to lead units in the all-black 92nd, one of two lone divisions reserved for black combatants. Accommodating 1,250 candidates between the ages of twenty-five and forty, the camp was supported by General Leonard Wood and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker.[1] Of the African American men selected, a great majority came from black colleges and universities, including Atlanta University and Morehouse College as well as Howard University, Hampton Agricultural and Industrial Institute, Lincoln University, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute and Morgan College.

Under the direction of General Charles Ballou, the COTC candidates were trained to endure the physical and mental rigors of war. Ballou insisted that “strong bodies, keen intelligence, absolute obedience to order, unflagging industry, exemplary conduct, and character of the highest order” were required for success.[2] Yet, even with their college training, commitment to the war effort and the endorsement of officials in Washington, whites resisted the implications of the “so-called Negro” being capable of leadership, courage and bravery under fire. Most were fearful of the possibility of a repeat of the 1917 Houston, Texas incident involving Regular Army black troops, which resulted in the deaths of sixteen white civilians and thirteen black soldiers, who were hanged for murder.

Originally planned as a three-month endeavor running from July to September, the COTC at Fort Des Moines was extended by more than a month, causing nearly half the men to quit with the belief that the “War Department never intended to commission colored men as officers in the army.”[3] The disappointed candidates returned home without fanfare. However, the 639 candidates who remained prepared for the long haul. A month later, on 14 October 1917, the COTC graduated 106 captains, 329 first lieutenants and 204 second lieutenants, all ready for assignment. Praising the accomplishments of the newly commissioned officers, special assistant to Secretary of War Baker, Emmett J. Scott of the Tuskegee Institute, spoke directly to the men at the official ceremony, arguing that “wherever you go, and wherever you serve, I know you will bear in mind that in a very real sense, you and those who serve with you, have in your keeping the good name of a proud, expectant and confident people.”[4]

After receiving their assignments, the 639 officers dispersed to take their places in one of seven camps where the various units of the 92nd Division were located. Unfortunately, the 92nd Division included a number of white southern officers who maintained their beliefs in the inferiority of African Americans and vehemently rejected the authority of the newly commissioned officers. As a result of the failure of United States Military to reign in and replace the racist commanding officers, the deployment of the 92nd to the Western Front is remembered as one of the saddest chapters related to black soldiers in the war effort.

-Pellom McDaniels III, Ph.D.

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[1] Emmett J. Scott, The American Negro in the War, (Washington, D.C., 1919).

[2] Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri, The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I, (Philadelphia 1974): 59.

[3]  Scott, The American Negro in the War, 90.

[4] “Address of Emmett J. Scott, Special Assistant to the Secretary of War,” Chicago Defender (20 October 1917): 12.

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.

Colored Officers Training Camp at Fort Des Moines

Historical Contexts