African Americans were deeply divided on taking part in the war in Europe. Referring to the legal segregation and racial terror that defined the lives of most black Americans, many argued that democracy needed to be established at home before fighting for it overseas. Others, like W.E.B. Du Bois, stood in the tradition of those arguing that taking on the responsibilities of military service could be used to fight for full citizenship. Around 400,000 African Americans served during the war, but the vast majority were limited to menial tasks under the command of Southern NCOs dedicated to protecting segregation. At the same time, the experience of being overseas in a place not defined by American racist structures opened up many soldiers’ eyes to the possibility of change at home.
Among the most notable of the few soldiers allowed into combat roles were the 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Fighting alongside French soldiers, they were essential to pushing back the Germans’ final offensive in the winter of 1917/18 and earned numerous honors from the French and their own government in recognition of their valor. The two men photographed here, Henry Johnson (left) and Neadham Roberts (right), were the most famous. They were awarded the Croix de Guerre for fighting off a German unit even after their ammunition ran out and despite being wounded over twenty times. The Hellfighters had not been permitted to take part in a farewell parade when they left New York, but on their return their commander ensured that they would have a victory parade of their own, accompanied by their regimental band under the direction of the famous jazz musician James Reese Europe. They served as a powerful symbol of achievement and dedication in the face of American hypocrisy on race and democracy, which continued on after the war.
Source: “Two American Negroes win Croix de Guerre,” U.S. National Archives, Washington, D.C., Records Group 165, 533523.