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The Role of African American Soldiers in World War I

About 400,000 Black Soldiers served in the United States Army in World War 1. About 367,710 of these came into the service through the selective Draft Law. Nearly 20,000 soldiers of the United States, uniformed, armed, equipped, drilled, trained and ready to take the field. The most famous are the 9th and 10th Cavalry. The 9th and 10th Cavalry, saved the day at San Juan Hill for Colonel Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and helped to give him much of his military reputation and distinction.

When the United States Armed Forces were strong in the beginning they discouraged black to enlist in the military. The Associated Press sent a telegram out from Richmond, Virginia, April 24, 1917 stating:

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“Richmond, Va., April 24.—No more Negroes will be accepted for enlistment in the United States Army at present. This was the order received by Major Hardeman, an officer in charge of the recruiting station here, from the War Department. ‘Colored organizations filled,’ was the explanation.”

Negro newspapers started printing how they felt about not being able to enlist. They sent them to the War Department and wanted the War Department to make provisions for colored troops. The War Department finally gave in and started letting blacks enlist. Approximately 200,000 African Americans were sent to Europe. More than half of those sent were assigned to labor and stevedore battalions, but they performed essential duties nonetheless, building roads, bridges, and trenches in support of the front-line battles. Roughly 42,000 saw combat.

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Blacks and white soldiers were housed separately in the war. Philip Randolph was pessimistic about what the war would mean for black Americans. He pointed out that Negroes had sacrificed their blood on the battlefields of every American war since the Revolution, but it still had not brought them full citizenship. W.E.B. DuBois argued that “while the war lasts [we should] forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”

As I did my research on African Americans in World War 1 I learned the draft started out just for whites, even though blacks were in fighting to wars at the same time, and that African Americans went through a lot just so I can live the way I live now.



Scott, Emmit, Am LLD. Scott Official History American Negro in The World War. New York, 1919

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The Role of African American Soldiers in World War I. (2021, Feb 12). Retrieved February 7, 2023, from