|[an error occurred while processing this directive]||
Chapter One: Freedom Overseas: African American Soldiers Fight the Great War
The summer of 1914 was one of the most beautiful that Europeans had experienced in many years. Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African American artist living in Paris, spent that summer working at his rural retreat in the small Picard village of Trepied, glorying in the pure light and air of eastern France and painting scenes of biblical life full of luminous mysticism. On August 1, however, Tanner's peaceful idyll shattered as Europe plunged into the First World War. The approach of German armies forced Tanner and his family to evacuate Trepied, taking refuge in England for two weeks. The outbreak of war made a major impact on Tanner, as he revealed in a letter to a friend: "What right have I to do, what right to be comfortable? In London I saw some of the Canadian contingent and many volunteers, fine, handsome, intelligent men going out to fight, to suffer and to die for principles which I believe in as strongly as they and sit down to paint a little picture, and thus make myself happy--No it cannot be done." During the war years Tanner painted very little. By the end of 1917 he had begun a project with the American Red Cross working with wounded U.S. soldiers in France to raise vegetables.
The world of Henry Ossawa Tanner, of Parisian ateliers and cafes, of conversations with artists from around the world and favorable reviews in the French and international press, was light years removed from that of virtually all African Americans in the early twentieth century. War brought these two worlds together. For Tanner this interlude would be brief; after the war he returned to his artistic endeavors, remaining in Paris until his death in 1937. But for the black soldier the glimpse of a world where a man or woman of color could rise to the heights of renown achieved by Henry Ossawa Tanner came as a revelation. African Americans had visited and lived in Paris throughout the nineteenth century, but usually as individuals isolated from one another. The experiences of black American soldiers in war-torn France brought a new type of African American expatriate to Paris, one who both interacted with the French and formed his own community in exile as well. Where Tanner had led, many would now follow, leaving their mark on the City of Light.
BLACK AMERICA ON THE EVE OF WAR
In 1914 life in France could not have been further from the thoughts of most African Americans. Little more than two generations removed from slavery, black America as a whole remained trapped by virulent white racism and grinding poverty at the bottom of American society. The gap between the races was especially striking in the South, home to the overwhelming majority of African Americans. Southern blacks lived a life that in many ways resembled the bondage they had so recently escaped. Most worked as sharecroppers, owning little or no land of their own. They were the first to suffer hard times and economic ruin in case of crop failure or recession. The South in 1914 was the poorest region of the country, and much of the white population lived in conditions of dire poverty. However, racist policies ensured that blacks always got the smallest slice of the pie. In the early years of the century, Southerners spent over $10 for the education of each white child, but less than $3 for the education of each black child. This discrepancy resulted in shockingly high illiteracy rates among blacks; one in three Southern blacks could not read in 1910, as opposed to one in thirty Southern whites.
In 1914 Southern blacks lived in a world determined to suppress their slightest efforts to achieve equality with, or even respect from, their white neighbors. They learned at an early age that failure to observe the expected deferential posture in public could and would be met with savage reprisals. Although in theory full citizens of the United States, African Americans in the South dared not exercise their Constitutional right to vote, so that the Southern states remained a racial oligarchy in the midst of a supposedly democratic nation. In 1916 fifty-four blacks (including one woman) were lynched in the South, their silenced bodies eloquently testifying to the dank climate of racist terror enshrouding the former Confederacy.
Although Southern blacks remained de facto slaves in many ways, they did have one advantage over their ancestors: they could leave the South if they so chose. What had been a steady stream of African Americans heading north toward freedom in the opening years of the century turned into a torrent after 1914. War in Europe both caused an economic boom in the industrial North and abruptly cut off the supply of white immigrant labor that staffed the great American factories, so that employers scrambled to recruit black Southerners. Some 400,000 Southern blacks elected to follow the North Star from 1910 to 1920; the black population of Chicago more than doubled during those years. In the North, African Americans generally found better jobs and a somewhat improved racial climate. But while white Northerners eschewed the vicious racial terrorism that prevailed below the Mason-Dixon Line, they used other means to keep blacks subordinate. African Americans were relegated to the worst jobs, the worst schools, and the worst neighborhoods. Flight to the North certainly brought some changes for the better, but it could not erase the fact that, from Mississippi to Manhattan, blacks remained a victimized, oppressed caste excluded from the mainstream of American life.
Given their desperate conditions, it is not surprising that at first few African Americans paid much attention to the outbreak of war in Europe; for most, France might as well have been on a different planet. Certainly the majority of those who considered the question at all favored the cause of the Allies. France already enjoyed a reputation for decent treatment of peoples of color, based on the enthusiastic reports of distinguished nineteenth-century visitors like Ira Aldridge, Bishop Daniel Payne, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass. In particular, the NAACP journal The Crisis, headed by the Francophile W.E.B. Du Bois, embraced the cause of France as that of enlightened civilization under assault from Teutonic racism.
There were even cases of African Americans who felt strongly enough about France's plight to join her fighting forces before America's entry into the conflict. Eugene Jacques Bullard was born the grandson of slaves in 1894 in Columbus, Georgia. His father, Octave Bullard, came from Martinique and had often told his young son glowing tales about France. As Bullard noted many years later in his journal, "My father had told me in France there are not different white churches and black churches, or white schools and black schools, or white graveyards and black graveyards. People, colored and white, just live together and treat each other the same and that was where I wanted to go." Gene Bullard left home at the tender age of seven, shortly after a lynch mob forced his family to flee Columbus. He roamed around the South for a few years, and then, at the age of ten, stowed away on a ship bound for Germany, hoping eventually to reach France. A strongly built man with a volcanic temper, Bullard spent the next several years in Britain working as a boxer before finally reaching Paris in 1913, having just turned nineteen: "When I got off the boat train in Paris I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. Here I was in the place I had wanted to be in and to see all my life. And it was wonderful."
Eugene Bullard returned to France the following year as a member of a traveling dance troupe, Freedman's Pickaninnies. He stayed in Paris after the troupe left, and when the war broke out he joined the French foreign legion along with Bob Scanlon, another African American boxer he'd known in London. Transferring to a French unit in 1915, Bullard took part in the great battle at Verdun, suffering shrapnel wounds and receiving the croix de guerre for his wartime service. After his recovery he trained as a flyer, transferring again to the French Air Service in October 1916. Bullard became an ace pilot with the Lafayette Flying Corps, a group of American pilots who fought for France before their own nation joined the war, and he earned the sobriquet the Black Swallow of Death for his daring in battle.
As the war continued and the United States drew closer to intervention on the side of the Allies, African American public opinion increasingly favored the war effort. Those black leaders who spoke up for the Allied cause portrayed the war as a worldwide struggle for democracy, in which victory could not fail to improve the conditions of their people. Such arguments generally fell on receptive ears, and when the U.S. government declared war on Germany in April 1917 most blacks eagerly proclaimed their willingness to do their part. In the pages of The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois and other prominent spokesmen called upon African Americans to join the fight for freedom and equality by assisting the war effort.
Not surprisingly, some blacks refused to join this chorus of support, believing that a nation which had treated them so poorly had no right to demand sacrifices. The labor leader A. Philip Randolph stated that rather than volunteer to make the world safe for democracy, he would fight to make Georgia safe for the Negro. Yet most African Americans ignored such protests. They argued that blacks had a moral responsibility to take part in such a struggle for freedom. More concretely, many believed that once black Americans had willingly borne their share of the wartime burden, their white fellow citizens would be more likely to grant them the respect and equality they had so clearly earned.
Events in 1917 did not support such fond hopes. The number of blacks lynched in that year rose to seventy. The increase in racist violence was especially noteworthy in the North, often sparked by white workers resentful of the ever increasing black population. Race riots, which usually involved attacks upon African Americans by white mobs, took place in New York; Newark; New Jersey; Chicago; and most tragically in East Saint Louis, Illinois. There whites killed or wounded more than a hundred black men, women, and children. For the eleven-year-old Josephine Baker, across the river in Saint Louis, it was a racial baptism of fire she would never forget.
In many other, less violent ways white Americans demonstrated that black support of the war effort would not bring them better treatment. Many whites, especially Southerners, strongly opposed drafting African American soldiers. The very thought of furnishing black men with rifles and sending them overseas to shoot white people gave many pause. More significantly, most whites considered military service in the uniform of the United States a signal honor requiring intelligence and courage, qualities they found lacking in most African American men. Most of the many blacks who volunteered for war duty before the institution of selective service in May 1917 were turned away as unsuitable. Once it became clear that the exigencies of war mandated the use of blacks, Southern draft boards signed them up in massive numbers; five Southern states drafted more blacks than whites. However, the army was very reluctant to commission black officers. It forced a top African American soldier, Colonel Charles Young, to retire because of high blood pressure, even after Young had demonstrated his physical stamina by riding from Ohio to Washington, D.C., on horseback. It soon became clear that the army intended to use African American soldiers as unskilled physical labor, and had no intention of sending trained black soldiers to fight in France. If, for blacks, participation in the war effort meant earning glory on foreign battlefields, whites more often conceived of their lot as a militarized version of the chain gang.
More than 400,000 African Americans served in the United States armed forces during World War I, and about half of those saw duty in France. Almost all of these enrolled in the army, because the marines barred blacks altogether, while the navy permitted them to serve only in a few menial positions. Black army recruits performed a wide variety of combat and noncombat functions. However, from the outset the army leadership made it clear that blacks would be used only in segregated units, to appease white Southern concerns.
The black soldier of World War I usually experienced a long wait from the moment of his enlistment to the time when he set foot on French soil. All soldiers must first be trained, and the training of black recruits remained controversial throughout the war. White Southerners strongly opposed sending "uppity" Northern blacks to be trained in Southern camps, and white civilians living next to these camps consistently treated the new black soldiers with hostility and contempt. Incidents abounded; the most serious took place in Houston in September 1917. There repeated provocations led to a clash between black soldiers and armed white civilians, in which seventeen of the latter perished. After a summary court-martial the army hanged thirteen of the soldiers, sentencing forty-one others to life imprisonment.
As this incident reveals, African American recruits could expect little or no assistance from the army leadership in case of conflicts with white civilians. Moreover, white officers and soldiers engaged at times in discriminatory practices. The YMCA buildings in Camp Greene, North Carolina, were reserved for white soldiers, and no equivalent facilities were provided for the ten thousand black recruits stationed there. White officers frequently referred to blacks with derogatory terms like nigger and coon. Those who dared protest such indignities often ended up in a military prison as their reward. In addition to such insults, blacks suffered from more endemic forms of discrimination in the training camps. Conditions for African American recruits were consistently inferior to those of whites. Many worked long hours outside, wearing only summer clothing in wintry weather. In a camp near Baltimore two barracks of equal size were used for blacks and whites; the black building housed three hundred soldiers; the white one, thirty-five. More than a few black recruits never lived to see combat, perishing from a combination of poor hygiene, inadequate and spoiled food, and overwork.
The road that led to combat on the fields of France was thus a hard one. Its rigors ensured that those African Americans sent to work and fight overseas had already been severely tested, preparing them to withstand the trials they would soon face. In France they would continue to face racist discrimination by their white superiors. Yet in spite of the numerous roadblocks in their paths, in spite of the harsh treatment and countless petty indignities visited upon them by racist whites, African Americans made a major contribution to America's effort in the First World War, forging a record of distinction and at times brilliance on French battlefields.
And they were the first black Americans to go to France in large numbers, introducing the French to the distinctive culture of their people. Many would discover in their dealings with the French people that discrimination and oppression did not have to characterize relations across the color line. Black GIs came to France to fight the Germans, but in the process they also laid the foundations for the vibrant African American community that would settle in Paris after the war.
Right from the beginning, black Americans were present in the military forces sent by the United States overseas. The first American troop convoy to sail for France, in June 1917, included more than four hundred African American stevedores, or longshoremen, who worked to unload the ships upon arrival. Many others soon followed, so that by the end of the war fifty thousand blacks were working in French ports for the American army. In December the first black American soldiers arrived in France, and tens of thousands of black troops were engaged on French battlefields by the summer of 1918.
Although wartime accounts usually give pride of place to the fighting man, it is appropriate and only just that we begin with the story of those African Americans who worked as laborers for the U.S. Army in France. Most black Americans in France served as workers, not soldiers. Roughly 80 percent, or 160,000, of those who crossed the seas during World War I shouldered the shovel rather than the rifle, and one third of all army laborers were black. This division came as no coincidence: army policy consistently favored using blacks to do the dirtiest, least glamorous work of the war. A May 1918 report on the status of African American draftees commented: "The poorer class of backwoods negro has not the mental stamina and moral sturdiness to put him in the line against opposing German troops who consist of men of high average education and thoroughly trained.... It is recommended that these colored drafted men be organized in reserve labor battalions, put to work at useful constructive labor that furthers the prosecution of the war." The army reasoned that employing blacks as laborers would not only suit their inferior capabilities, but also free up white draftees for use as soldiers.
African American laborers worked in a variety of organizations, generally known as labor battalions, during World War I. In 1918 the army gave these battalions a new name, the Services of Supply, which it hoped would remove their associations with chain gang labor. However, they soon received the nickname S.O.S., the radio code for help, symbolizing their oppression. Black workers in France performed many different types of jobs, including loading and unloading ships, building roads and military camps, hauling building materials, laying railroad tracks, digging ditches, caring for livestock, removing garbage, and burying the dead. As a rule they performed the least skilled, most physically exhausting tasks. Unlike many white laborers, they rarely received any military training, usually being rushed overseas as quickly as possible to fill the army's critical need for support work.
In contrast to the poor opinions the army leadership expressed about their abilities, black laborers in France often performed impressive physical feats, especially black longshoremen. To an important extent port workers formed the linchpin of the entire American military effort in France. The United States Army had never before fought such an extensive campaign so far away from home. Unloading and deploying both soldiers and war material in French ports had to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to ensure an Allied victory. By the middle of 1918, large numbers of black longshoremen were busy unloading American ships in French harbors like Brest, Saint-Nazaire, and Bordeaux. Many of these workers had never even seen a ship before coming to France, much less worked on one, and yet their accomplishments frequently astonished French and white American observers alike. One compared their speed to that of Noah loading the Ark, and another commented, "They are the finest workers you ever saw. One Negro can do four times as much work as any other man, and have fun doing it. The French stevedores stand by and watch with amazement at my hustling gangs. The way they handle a 100-pound crate makes the Frenchman's eyes bulge." In one instance, African American longshoremen unloaded five thousand tons of material in one day, when French officials had estimated that six thousand could only be moved over an entire month. During the month of September 1918, black stevedores set a record by unloading an incredible twenty-five thousand tons of cargo per day for several weeks.
Such performances seem all the more impressive when one considers the conditions under which they were achieved. Black dockworkers often worked in twenty-four-hour shifts, taking only brief breaks for food and rest. As in the training camps at home, black workers in France usually got the worst clothing, food, and housing the army had to offer. In addition to these physical hardships, African Americans in the S.O.S. had to put up with the indignities of racial discrimination. They rarely received the opportunities for leisure and entertainment that meant so much to their white fellow workers. Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson, two black American women working as YMCA volunteers in France, testified to the prevalence of this discrimination: "While white American soldiers were permitted to go freely about the towns, the great mass of colored American soldiers saw them for the most part, as they marched in line to and from the docks. Passes for them were oftener than otherwise as hard to secure as American gold."
In addition to loading and unloading ships, black laborers performed many other kinds of tasks. Construction crews built warehouses, barracks, and supply dumps, as well as modernizing crumbling port facilities in old French harbors like that of Marseilles. Some lucky recruits, usually those with prewar job experience, were able to obtain lighter assignments. Several Pullman car waiters found themselves performing the same duties on military trains in wartime France. Others, however, worked right at the front, in conditions every bit as dangerous as those experienced by any soldier. In several instances black labor battalions worked to repair roads and railroads on the front lines, unarmed and fully exposed to enemy shellfire. Other African Americans worked as motorcycle couriers, delivering vital information despite the most hazardous conditions. Ralph W. Tyler., a black American newspaper correspondent in wartime France, praised their skill and courage:
It is really marvelous how these colored motorcyclists ride pell-mell, in the darkest nights, without headlights, along these strange, devious, forking, and merging roads of France ... I rode several miles with one last night, from one front to another, at a 65-mile-per-hour clip. He was indifferent to the bursting of American anti-aircraft shells, aimed at the Boche airplane in the sky above us; he was oblivious to the thunder of the German cannon, and their shrieking shells to our right; he merely had his mind, as he kept his eyes to the front, on getting me back to the point which we had left a few hours before, a distance of five miles, in ten minutes. And he made it without slip or hit.These laudatory descriptions, by both black and white American observers, of the Herculean tasks that African American workers acquitted in France, highlight a central contradiction of the black experience during the Great War. Blacks were expected and required by military discipline to perform a tremendous amount of work under terrible conditions. Praiseworthy accounts of black physical prowess on the job, complete with references to the beauty of their singing, not only underline a view of African Americans as beasts of burden, but also run very close to traditional plantation imagery. In effect, for most blacks called to the colors the war simply transferred slave labor from the cotton fields of the South to the harbors of France. At the same time, many blacks saw service in the American army, even in the labor battalions, as a chance for African Americans to prove themselves worthy of acceptance and equal treatment by their white fellow citizens. This explains the enthusiastic portraits of black labor achievements left by African American writers like Emmett J. Scott and W. Allison Sweeney who argued enthusiastically that in spite of their degrading treatment black workers in France accomplished superhuman feats because of their love of their country and their determination to prove themselves worthy of her. African Americans' desire to win the respect of a nation that had always treated them shabbily was paradoxical and deeply tragic, yet its importance to those who served in France cannot be denied.
The strength of this desire tends to obscure instances of resistance by black workers. Complaints about overwork, poor housing and food, or segregated conditions were considered military insubordination and treated accordingly. Given the harsh conditions that greeted blacks in France, organized protest was extremely difficult if not impossible. Attempts to feign illness or work at an easier pace were held up as proof of black laziness and inferiority. Consequently, African American reporters and commentators tended to minimize examples of resistance, fearful of confirming white stereotypes, and showed little sympathy for those who committed them. As Charles Williams commented in his 1923 book, Sidelights on Negro Soldiers, after praising black workers in France: "On the other hand, the Negro soldiers themselves were not without faults. Some of their difficulties were due to their own ignorance and to customs that they brought into the army from civil life. On plantations and public works some had been used to `ducking the boss' and slipping away, and attempts to continue this practice in the army sometimes resulted in their being placed in the guardhouse."
Though instances of resistance did occur (one general noted with dismay examples of blacks refusing to work, even after being fined and imprisoned), this kind of defiance resulted not from the harsh nature of the work itself, but rather from the racist treatment meted out to black workers by white officers. At one large camp in France, for example, three hundred black workers were imprisoned, largely for violating orders preventing them (but not their white colleagues) from going off base and associating with French civilians. When a new commanding officer reformed such discriminatory practices, the number of blacks in the guardhouse was reduced to fifty.
So the army intentionally consigned most African American recruits to positions in which they would not only be forced to perform the most demanding and ignoble tasks, but also receive as little attention and praise as possible, justifying the stereotype of blacks as inferiors. Aside from Ralph Tyler, few reporters commented on the achievements of black laborers. Yet when one examines the record, it becomes clear that these workers transformed lowly assignments into opportunities to prove their skill and value to the American war effort.
This determination also characterized the black American soldiers who fought in France. At one point, several African Americans stationed in Ohio while waiting to be sent overseas were asked if they were going to France. "No, sir, I am not going to France," replied one of them. "I am going to Berlin and I may stop in France for a short time on the way." Like the laborers, black soldiers in World War I fought a war on two fronts. In addition to combating German troops, they also had to struggle against the racist attitudes and practices of both the army leadership and many white soldiers. Against great odds African American soldiers made a valuable contribution to the Allied war effort, even though that contribution rarely received the recognition it deserved.
Black Americans served in two army units, the Ninety-second and Ninety third divisions. The former was the only all-black division of World War I, whereas the latter, which was never brought up to full strength, had a heavy majority of African Americans. The Ninety-third Division was the first to be organized and deployed in France. It consisted primarily of black National Guard units plus some draftees. The latter formed the 371st Infantry Regiment, while the guardsmen constituted three other infantry regiments: the 369th, of New York; the 370th, of Illinois; and the 371st, of Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. The Ninety-second Division was formed somewhat later and consisted almost entirely of African American draftees. It contained four infantry regiments: the 365th, of Texas and Oklahoma; the 366th, of Alabama; the 367th, of New York; and the 368th, of Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Ninety-second also included several smaller regiments, such as three devoted to field artillery. More than thirty thousand black combat troops, from the North, South, and all over America, saw duty in France.
First to go was the 369th Infantry Regiment of New York, perhaps the most celebrated group of black soldiers in World War I. This unit, popularly known as the Harlem Hellfighters, had been organized in the fall of 1916 as part of the National Guard, and consisted mostly of men from Harlem and other black neighborhoods of New York City. These soldiers received their first lessons in warfare in the city's streets before moving to a South Carolina training camp in October 1917. The local white population lost no time in making sure that these big-city Northern blacks knew their place in the South, subjecting them to a number of humiliating racist outrages. Faced with the angry reactions of the black recruits, the War Department decided to ship them to France as quickly as possible, in order to avoid further incidents. Therefore, after a few more weeks of training at camps in New Jersey and Long Island, the unit set sail in December 1917, landing at the port of Brest two days after Christmas.
Eager to go into action, the men of the 369th soon learned that waiting often formed a central part of the soldier's experience, and they spent their first several weeks in France engaged in noncombat duties. Like many African American regiments in France, the 369th was formally assigned to the French high command for more training, and ended up fighting under its leadership. Working well with the French, the regiment received orders in April to move to the front lines. By May it was fighting a German offensive along the Champagne front in eastern France. The 369th remained in this sector through July, earning the respect of all observers and helping to break the last German offensive of the war. In September the soldiers of the 369th took part in the first American offensive, fighting on the front lines until they were relieved in mid-October.
While in France the 369th Infantry Regiment earned a record of distinction equaled by few other bodies of American troops during World War I. In the words of Emmett J. Scott, who was secretary to Booker T. Washington and adviser to the War Department on Negro affairs, "The regiment never lost a man captured, a trench, or a foot of ground ... and ... it had less training than any American unit before going into action." In October 1918 the French army awarded this regiment the croix de guerre for its bravery and successes in battle on the Champagne front. In addition, many individual soldiers won military decorations. Sergeant Henry Johnson, a railroad porter from Albany, New York, became the first American soldier in France to win the individual croix de guerre with palm. On the night of May 12, 1918, Johnson and Private Needham Roberts alone stood off the attack of a much larger German force, in the process killing four and wounding thirty-two enemy soldiers. In August Sergeant William Butler won the American army's Distinguished Service Cross for single-handedly putting a German raiding party to flight. In November the regiment achieved a signal honor when it became the first Allied unit to advance to the Rhine River, thus symbolizing Germany's defeat.
Although the 369th reaped the lion's share of press and public attention, other African American fighting units won glory on French battlefields. The 370th Infantry Regiment fought in northern France and Belgium, and came to be called the "Black Bastards" by the Germans for their daring in combat. These soldiers from Chicago and other parts of Illinois fought the last battle of World War I, capturing a German train minutes after the Armistice was declared. The 371st Regiment also fought bravely, winning a collective decoration from the French government as well as numerous individual citations. One of its white officers, in commenting on its achievements, noted:
In the engagements around Verdun the fighting qualities and courage of our boys won the admiration and most profuse praise of the French. Citations were showered upon the valorous boys for their unflinching conduct in the face of withering machine-gun fire, which they overcame and silenced at the point of the bayonet. We broke the Hindenburg line at Monthois, and so rapidly did our boys move that a halt was called to enable the right and left flanks of our line to catch up. An excellent opportunity was furnished by comparisons as to just how good our colored soldiers were.The Ninety-second Division, which landed in France in June 1918, did not achieve the same distinction as its fellow black division. The white American officers who criticized the Ninety-second generally pointed to the failure of its 368th Regiment to withstand German attacks in the Argonne forest at the end of September 1918. Such criticisms usually ignored the fact that white regiments had performed just as poorly in that battle. Instead, they used the defeat as an excuse to condemn the entire division, even though its other three infantry regiments had not taken part. Colonel Allen Greer said that these black soldiers "failed in all their missions, laid down and sneaked to the rear," while Major B. F. Norris, who later admitted that he hid in a ditch during the German attack, condemned them as cowards.
The soldiers of the Ninety-second Division were not above reproach, but such slanders were patently unfair and obscured their very real achievements. In fact, members of the 368th Infantry Regiment received numerous decorations from both the French and American governments. The 367th Infantry Regiment in particular established a reputation as a fine combat force. Christened the Buffaloes, in memory of the blacks who fought on the American frontier under the name Buffalo Soldiers, this regiment's first battalion won the croix de guerre. Often poorly trained and fighting under the worst conditions, the African American soldiers of the Ninety-second Division proved their mettle under fire.
If the American army failed to appreciate their worth, the same could not be said of the enemy. The Germans on the other side of the trenches soon learned they were fighting black soldiers and began to address propaganda to them in particular. On September 3, a German airplane dropped leaflets over a section of the Vosges front where the 367th regiment was stationed:
TO THE COLORED SOLDIERS OF THE UNITED STATES ARMYIn spite of such appeals, however, African American soldiers in France remained overwhelmingly loyal to the American cause.
Hello, boys, what are you doing over here? Fighting the Germans? Why? Have they ever done you any harm? Of course some white folks and the lying English-American papers told you that the Germans ought to be wiped out for the sake of humanity and Democracy. What is Democracy? Personal freedom; all citizens enjoying the same rights socially and before the law. Do you enjoy the same rights as the white people do in America, the land of freedom and Democracy, or are you not rather treated over there as second class citizens?
Can you get into a restaurant where white people dine? Can you get a seat in a theatre where white people sit? Can you get a seat or a berth in a railroad car, or can you even ride in the South in the same street car with the white people?
And how about the law? Is lynching and the most horrible crimes connected therewith a lawful proceeding in a Democratic country? Now all this is entirely different in Germany, where they do like colored people.... To carry a gun in this service is not an honor but a shame. Throw it away and come over to the German lines. You will find friends who will help you.
Such loyalty is all the more remarkable given the treatment black soldiers in France received at the hands of the American army. The army leadership as a whole took a dim view of the combat potential of black troops, consistently undervaluing their skill and courage. This prejudice led General John Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force in France, to transfer the four infantry regiments of the Ninety-third Division to the French army. The move both helped satisfy the French demand for American troops and keep the American army as white as possible. Those African American soldiers, chiefly of the Ninety-second Division, who did remain under the direct control of the American army rarely received treatment equal to that given white soldiers. A study comparing the Ninety-second Division with the white Thirty-fifth Division concluded that the latter had received much more extensive training before coming to France. In general, black troops experienced worse conditions, less leave time, and more harassment by military police. Yet white officers ascribed any failings on their part to innate racial inadequacies. As General Robert Bullard, commander of the American Second Army that included the Ninety-second Division, noted in his diary, "Poor negroes! they are hopelessly inferior."
The use of black officers posed a particular problem for the army brass. Most white officers believed that African Americans had little capability for leadership, and that only whites could effectively command fighting men. One memo from August 1918 argued, "With a few exceptions there is a characteristic tendency among the colored officers to neglect the welfare of their men and to perform their duties in a perfunctory manner. They are lacking in initiative also." The army was reluctant to commission black officers, and many highly educated African Americans with previous military experience found themselves employed as foot soldiers or common laborers during the war. Those appointed as officers generally received less training than whites, and once in France were forced to use segregated and inferior facilities. White officers often treated them with contempt, frequently requesting their transfer to other units.
Most of all, the American army tried to restrict contacts between black soldiers and the French population, as far as possible. Like blacks, many white Americans believed that the French were relatively color-blind, and feared that African Americans in France would grow accustomed to being treated as equals, and would then want the same treatment when they returned home. To prevent this expectation, in August 1918 the army drew up guidelines to explain to the French how they should treat black soldiers. Called "Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops," this document instructed French military and civilian officials in the finer points of American race relations. It noted that whereas many French were inclined to be friendly toward blacks, in America it was imperative to maintain strict separation of the races in order to prevent "mongrelization," and that white Americans saw such friendliness as offensive. Implicit was the threat that American aid might be withheld if the French did not learn the proper way of dealing with blacks. In particular, the document warned against intimacies between blacks and Frenchwomen.
Although American authorities could only advise the French on this matter, it could and did take sterner measures to compel "appropriate" behavior from blacks in the U.S. Army. Members of the 367th Regiment were informed that the penalty for visiting a French home was twenty-four hours on bread and water, followed by an eighteen-mile hike with a full pack. In at least one city black soldiers were confined to certain streets in order to limit their contact with the French. Army concerns increased after the Armistice, as black soldiers waited to be sent home. One black regiment received an order that stated, "Enlisted men of this organization will not talk to or be in company with any white women, regardless of whether the women solicit their company or not." Several black soldiers were shot by military police, often for having consorted with Frenchwomen. In April 1919 a riot broke out in the Breton port of Saint-Nazaire between white American soldiers and French civilians, after the former insulted a Frenchwoman for going into a restaurant with a Frenchman of color. A number of violent incidents took place between white American military personnel and their French hosts over the latter's friendly relations with nonwhite soldiers in the year after the war. Paris, Bordeaux, and other cities witnessed clashes, usually provoked by drunken Americans. In his novel of the war, 1919, John Dos Passos depicted the death of one of his characters, the American sailor Joe Williams, in just such a situation on the night of the Armistice.
Joe went cruising looking for Jeanette, who was a girl he'd kinder taken up with whenever he was in St. Nazaire.... He went in back where there was a cabaret all red plush with mirrors and the music was playing The Star-Spangled Banner and everybody cried Vive L'Amerique and pushed in his face as he came in and then ... he'd seen Jeanette.... She was dancing with big sixfoot black Senegalese. Joe saw red. He pulled her away from the nigger who was a frog officer all full of gold braid and she said, "Wazamatta cherie" and Joe hauled off and hit the damn nigger as hard as he could right on the button, but the nigger didn't budge.... A waiter and a coupla frog soldiers came up and tried to pull Joe away ... Joe laid out a couple of frogs and was backing off towards the door, when he saw in the mirror that a big guy in a blouse was bringing down a bottle on his head held with both hands. He tried to swing around, but he didn't have time. The bottle crashed his skull and he was out.The case of Captain Boutte of the Ninety-second Division typified the paranoia with which many white Americans viewed contact between African Americans and the French. Matthew Virgil Boutte was a Creole from Louisiana, with degrees from Fisk University and the University of Illinois. Fluent in French as a result of his background, he became one of the very few blacks to achieve a high position in the American Expeditionary Force in France. Arriving in France in June 1918, Captain Boutte found that his language abilities enabled him to procure rooms for black officers and facilitated many friendly contacts with the French. Jealous, his white commander charged him with twenty-three violations of military law and had him arrested. Fortunately, the case against Boutte was so clearly discriminatory that an army disciplinary hearing dismissed all the charges and released him.
In spite of the best efforts of the American army, however, black American soldiers and the people of France did get to know one another during World War I. These contacts were not always easy, but for the most part African Americans felt that the French treated them with far more decency and respect than they had ever received from whites before. The memories of such pleasant encounters endured long after the war, motivating many of the blacks who chose to settle in Paris during the 1920s.
ENCOUNTERS WITH THE FRENCH
Although blacks have lived in France for several hundred years, most French people during the early twentieth century had never seen one face to face. This isolation was especially true of those living in the small villages through which detachments of African American soldiers passed en route to battle. Yet from the early nineteenth century on, many had read popular novels, travelers' accounts, and children's stories set in Africa. Writers like Marius-Ary Leblond, Eugene Fromentin, and above all Pierre Loti had painted a lurid portrait of life in the Dark Continent, emphasizing savagery and cannibalism under the hot tropical sun. For the average French man and woman, blacks meant Africa, where sensuous dark-skinned natives danced in the jungle or labored under the benevolent tutelage of the French Empire. Imagine the surprise, therefore, that these people experienced upon meeting blacks who spoke English and marched beneath the Stars and Stripes!
The Americans! For months they had been discussed; they had been expected, and there was great curiosity; groups of people go down to the public square of the town, where they see upon our white streets the first ranks of the Allied troops. But what a surprise! They are black soldiers! Black soldiers? There is great astonishment, a little fear. The rural population, not well informed, knows well the Negro of Africa, but those from America's soil, the country of the classical type, characterized by the cold, smooth white face; that from America could come this dark troupe--none could believe his own eyes.This rather florid letter, written by a Frenchwoman to a local newspaper and republished in The Crisis, sets forth many of the themes that characterized French reactions to black American soldiers during the war. There is the initial apprehension, followed by the realization that black Americans are indeed civilized, not fierce cannibals but benign, gentle giants. The writer notes the attraction of black music, and subtly hints at romantic liaisons between the soldiers and young Frenchwomen. Far from being color-blind, the French looked at African American soldiers through a haze of stereotypes.
They dispute among themselves; they are a little irritated; some of the women become afraid; one of them confides to me that she feels the symptoms of an attack of indigestion. Smiling, reassurably, "lady with all too emotional stomach, quiet yourself! They do not eat human flesh; two or three days from now you will be perfectly used to them." I said two or three days, but from that very evening the ice is broken. Natives and foreigners smile at each other, and try to understand each other. The next day we see the little children in the arms of the huge Negroes, confidently pressing their rosy cheeks to the cheeks of ebony, while their mothers look on with approbation.
A deep sympathy is in store for these men, which, yesterday, was not surmised. Very quickly it is seen they have nothing of the savage in them, but, on the other hand, one could not find a soldier more faultless in his bearing, and in his manners more affable, or more delicate than these children of the sun.... Now one honors himself to have them at his table. He spends hours in long talks with them; with a great supply of dictionaries and manuals of conversation.... Late at night the workers of the field forget their fatigue as they hear arise, in the peaceful night, the melancholy voices which call up to the memory of the exile his distant country, America. In the lanes along the flowery hedges, more than one group of colored American soldiers fraternize with our people, while the setting sun makes blue the neighboring hills, and gently the song of night is awakened.
All accounts agree that both French officials and ordinary citizens welcomed their black American guests cordially; after all, they had come to fight for France! The men of the Ninety-third Division fought under French commend, and many received praise and citations of valor from the French government. One American officer noted that "the French soldiers have not the slightest prejudice or feeling. The poilus and my boys are great chums eat, dance, sing, march and fight together in absolute accord." French civilians voiced few complaints about African American soldiers billeted in their villages, usually praising their polite, dignified conduct. They frequently used the expression "soldat noir, tres gentil, tres poli" (black soldier very nice, very polite) to describe them. The French welcomed American blacks into their homes and cheered them when they marched through on parade. As a result of such treatment, one soldier of the Ninety-third Division wrote his mother, "These French people don't bother with no color line business. They treat us so good that the only time I ever know I'm colored is when I look in the glass.
Both French officials and ordinary citizens often reacted with surprise and dismay to the bigoted attitudes of white Americans. Many simply could not understand why Americans would treat their fellow countrymen so poorly. French parliamentarians sharply criticized the American army's "Secret Information" memo, passing a resolution in the national assembly reaffirming their commitment to the equality of man. The French government eventually ordered destroyed all U.S. Army leaflets advocating discriminatory treatment of black soldiers. One French village had the experience of hosting detachments of first black, then white, American troops. While relations with the first proceeded smoothly, the white Americans behaved arrogantly and thoroughly alienated the local population. The village mayor responded by protesting, "Take back these soldiers and send us some real Americans, black Americans." A letter written by a Frenchwoman to an African American soldier provides another example of these sentiments:
Thank you for your friendship, I am happy to give mine in exchange, because I know now what is your hard condition. I have spoken to white men, and always I have seen the same flash (lightning) in their angry eyes, when I have spoken them of colored men. But I do not fear them for myself; I am afraid of them for you, because they have said me the horrible punishment of colored men in America. As I am a French girl I have answered, "It is not Christian." ... When a colored man goes in the house of a white girl, the policeman wait for him and kill him when he goes away! I have thought this way to do is savage, and it is why I was pitiful for the colored man ... I should like to express you how much I am revolted of that I have learned of your condition, and how amused I am to have heard many injurious opinions of white men upon ourselves, French women!Such reactions did not necessarily prove that the French had no biases of their own, however. African Americans were not the only people of color to come to France during the Great War, and other nonwhites had a very different experience there. For years before 1914, French military authorities, masters of the second largest colonial empire on earth, had debated the possibility of using black Africans as soldiers. Mindful of France's relatively small population and low birthrate vis-a-vis rival Germany, some officers argued that only imperial manpower could compensate for the lack of young Frenchmen, whereas others asserted that Africans were not disciplined or civilized enough to make good soldiers. In 1910 this debate came to a head when an ambitious young French officer named Charles Mangin published La Force Noire, a spirited argument in favor of the use of colonial troops. Mangin not only reemphasized the demographic importance of Africa's contribution to the French army, but also provided an exhaustive account of black military prowess throughout human history! Mangin's arguments carried the day, and in 1912 the French government decreed the systematic recruitment of men for military service in its African colonies.
Right from the beginning of the war, black African troops took part in the conflict, and the total number of soldiers furnished by French West Africa alone reached 135,000 by the end of 1918. Like African American soldiers, these recruits fought mostly in segregated units under the command of white officers. The officers, and the French population as a whole, often held prejudiced views of their charges. Many worried that Africans would not possess the technical skill necessary to handle a rifle, or would simply flee after their first encounters with artillery shelling and trench warfare. Once African troops had proved themselves in 1914, however, the French image of them shifted to one of ferocious, bloodthirsty maniacs on the field. In particular, the theme of African soldiers chopping off the heads of their opponents with bayonets recurred frequently in wartime France. One detachment of African riflemen found itself warmly greeted upon its arrival by French crowds shouting, "Bravo riflemen! Cut off the heads of the Germans!"
Yet in general French African soldiers did not encounter anything like the racism visited upon black American troops by white Americans on both sides of the Atlantic. Although African casualties were often extremely heavy, so were those of white French units. Recent scholarship has largely demolished the belief that France systematically used African soldiers as "cannon fodder" during the war. Moreover, the Africans seem to have been received hospitably wherever they went in France. In his interviews with twenty French African war veterans, the historian Charles John Balesi found that all rejected any suggestions of French racism. As one noted, "Blacks were highly esteemed there; there was no question of race."
If one considers the treatment of colonial workers in wartime France, a very different picture emerges. The French government brought more than half a million immigrant workers into France during the war to work in its war industries and on its farms; the majority of these were Europeans, but more than 200,000 came from the empire, principally Indochina, North Africa, and Madagascar, as well as China. Almost without exception, like their African American brothers, these nonwhite laborers performed the worst jobs and received the lowest pay of anyone in France during the war. There are also numerous instances of conflicts between colonial and French workers, especially toward the end of the war, ranging from fistfights to a few full-scale race riots, which had numerous causes. Fears that colonial workers were being used to lower wages or break strikes certainly played a role, as did outrage at sexual relationships between nonwhite men and Frenchwomen. In February 1918, one French labor union complained about the presence in France of "promiscuous peoples of manifestly inferior levels of civilization."
Few African American soldiers in France were aware of these problems. From the start of the war in Europe, America's black press had publicized the use of black troops by both France and Britain, highlighting their successes to support demands for the inclusion of African Americans in the United States Army. During the interwar years, movements like Pan-Africanism and negritude would bring blacks from America, Africa, and the Caribbean together in Paris to explore common experiences with racism. Yet such internationalism remained distant for most black Americans in France during World War I. All most knew was that the French treated them far better than white people ever had before, and they responded accordingly.
If they pitied the racist oppression of black Americans, in contrast the French immediately fell in love with that central product of African American culture, jazz. The classical music of black America, jazz has played a key role in the life of Paris's black community during the twentieth century, and it was the African American GIs of World War I who first introduced it to the French people. Right from the beginning of its history in New York, the 368th Infantry Regiment included an excellent forty-four-piece jazz band, led by two of Harlem's finest musicians, the bandmaster James Reese Europe and the drum major Noble Sissle. The people of France first heard Europe's band when the 368th Regiment landed at Brest. As an American reporter noted, "The first thing that Jim Europe's outfit did when it got ashore wasn't to eat. It wanted France to know that it was present, so it blew some plain ordinary jazz over the town. Twenty minutes before the 369th disembarked, Brest wasn't at all la-la, so to speak; but as soon as Europe had got to work, that part of France could see that hope wasn't entirely dead."
During the early months of 1918 Europe's band toured France, playing concerts in Nantes, Angers, Tours, and Aix-les-Bains. Everywhere the musicians met with an enthusiastic reception. The city of Aix presented the band with a beautiful silver vase in formal appreciation of its visit. Adept at many musical styles, Europe's ensemble would play both the French and American national anthems, Sousa marches, and other selections: in one city Noble Sissle moved his listeners to tears by singing "Joan of Arc" in both English and French. However, the band's jazz tunes always received the most attention. Sissle later described the impact of one of their concerts:
the whole audience began to sway, dignified French officers began to pat their feet along with the American general, who, temporarily, had lost his style and grace. Lieutenant Europe was no longer the Lieutenant Europe of a moment ago, but once more Jim Europe, who a few months ago rocked New York with his syncopated baton. His body swayed in willowy motions and his head was bobbing as it did in days when terpsichorean festivities reigned supreme. He turned to the trombone players, who sat impatiently waiting for their cue to have a "Jazz spasm," and they drew their slides out to the extremity and jerked them back with that characteristic crack.In August 1918 Europe's jazz orchestra won further acclaim when it played a concert at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris attended by the French president Raymond Poincare.
The audience could stand it no longer; the "Jazz germ" hit them, and it seemed to find the vital spot, loosening all muscles and causing what is known in America as an "Eagle Rocking Fit."
The 369th Regiment's band was the most famous example of African American music in France during World War I, but many other musicians helped bring the sounds of jazz to the French people. Most of the other black regiments had their own bands and played frequently before French audiences. The musicians of the 370th, led by George Dulf, made a very successful tour of northern and eastern France with the coloratura soprano Anita Brown of Chicago. Other African Americans came to France to perform; some, like Opal Cooper, would return to live in Paris after the war. Most important of all, the love of music displayed by the average black GI deeply impressed the French. Whether at work, on leave, or even at times in battle, black soldiers sang and played constantly. Those French men and women who listened to their songs experienced not only a new form of music, but also the deeper mysteries of the soul of a people. When one searches for the roots of the Jazz Age in 1920s Paris, one must consider the impact of energetic rhythms and haunting melodies overheard on the dusty plains of war-torn France.
Black American soldiers responded gratefully to the warm reception they received in France, frequently contrasting French decency with white American racism. As a token of their esteem for their hosts, African American GIs contributed 300,000 francs to a fund for French war orphans. Most significantly for the future, in letters to friends and relatives back home they commented enthusiastically on the generosity and fairness of the French people, praising France as a land where a man could be a man. Although the myth of French color blindness already existed among black Americans, the experiences of their soldiers in France during World War I powerfully reinforced it. In March 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois published a landmark article, "The Black Man in the Revolution of 1914-1918," in The Crisis. Arguing that "the black soldier saved civilization" during the war years, Du Bois emphasized the kind treatment these men had received from the French. Even after their return to a hostile America, Du Bois noted, "They will ever love France."
The affection that many African American doughboys felt for France resulted not just from the warmth of its people, but even more so from the contrast between this warmth and the studied hostility of white America. The proud record of black American soldiers in the Great War did nothing to diminish this hostility; on the contrary, whites seemed more determined than ever to keep "the darker brother" in his place. African Americans received ample evidence of this attitude while waiting to return home after the Armistice. The U.S. Army banned black American troops from participating in the great victory parade staged by Allied soldiers in Paris on Bastille Day, 1919, even though black French and British troops took part. Several black GIs were executed without trial that year, prompting a congressional investigation. When soldiers of the 367th Regiment prepared to sail for home on the USS Virginia, the captain had them removed on the grounds that no blacks had ever traveled on an American battleship.
Not surprisingly, such incidents sharpened the contrast between French tolerance and white American racism. This division certainly existed, but it was also a product of circumstances. Black soldiers of all nationalities were welcome in France during the war because they were fighting France's enemies. Unlike the United States, France had been invaded by the enemy (10 percent of her national territory lay under German occupation for most of the war), which on more than one occasion had come within striking distance of Paris itself. One million French soldiers had been killed in battle by the end of 1917. These conditions help explain the often rapturous welcome African American troops received in French villages; many would no doubt have welcomed the devil himself had he come prepared to fight the Germans. Also, both black and white American soldiers frequency won over French civilians by their unconscious willingness to pay local inhabitants ridiculously inflated prices for goods and services. In contrast, the French viewed colonial workers as competitors for jobs and women, and some argued that they only freed up more Frenchmen for slaughter in the trenches of the western front. Colonials often encountered a hostility that, while not usually as vicious as white American treatment of blacks, certainly called the idea of color-blind France into question. Black laborers, working separately from the French, did not pose the same kind of competitive threat. As a result, both African American workers and soldiers were viewed as honored guests who did not threaten to overstay their welcome.
After the Armistice, black soldiers had more opportunity to explore the country they had fought to protect. During 1919, soldiers briefly became tourists, visiting great French sights like the Reims cathedral, Mont-Saint-Michel, and, significantly, black madonnas in Myans and Puy. But the attraction of all these sights paled before that of Paris, the sophisticated heart of France. In 1919 the city shook off the privations and dreariness of wartime, resuming its glory as the City of Light. African American GIs visiting Paris marveled at its physical and historical beauty.
But when the French had finally won, life and light once again filled Paris, and with it the urge and joy of long days of sight-seeing for the Americans. Soldiers "on three days' leave" wanted to see luxurious Versailles whatever else was omitted. Others preferred Fontainebleau with its stately palace, or St. Denis with its hundreds of royal tombs. All wanted to go to the tombs of Lafayette and Napoleon. One would find the Chapel of the Invalides crowded with soldiers looking down upon the great sarcophagus, while a Y man related the history ... one liked to go out to Pere la Chaise with a group of men and show them its wonderful beauty, even though a cemetery--show them the graves of great scholars and artists of France, even those of its great lovers like Heloise and Abelard. Often the day would be closed with a restful ride on the Seine, where, somehow, one came into more intimate touch with historical Paris and a keener understanding of it than from any other point. Most black American soldiers who visited Paris in 1919 experienced it as a welcome diversion from the hard work and boredom of army life while waiting to go home, but little more than that. Others, however, saw it as a vision of a new life that beckoned, an exciting life full of art and literature, of peaceful afternoons in charming cafes and wild nights in music clubs. Above all, it offered a life free from the heavy burden of white racism so omnipresent in the United States. Some of those who glimpsed this vision acted to make it a reality, returning to Paris a few years later. They, and those African American men and women who followed them, finding inspiration in their tales of France, formed the vital black community that arose in Paris during the 1920s. World War I may not have brought freedom to America, but at least it showed the nation's black citizens one place where racial equality already seemed to exist, making the concept of color-blind France a rallying cry for a new day across the Atlantic.
Houghton Mifflin Company
Back to the top