African American Heritage

African Americans in the Military during World War I

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Americans were very reluctant to get involved and remained neutral for the better part of the war. The United States only declared war when Germany renewed its oceanic attacks that affected international shipping, in April 1917. African Americans, who had participated in every military conflict since the inception of the United States, enlisted and prepared for involvement. However, many of those who enlisted or were drafted found themselves in noncombative support roles.  Many African Americans served under the Services of Supply section of the American Expeditionary Forces. This section comprised of stevedore, labor, and engineers service battalions and companies. The main function of these companies was to support and provide materials to other companies along the front.

The notable exception were the soldiers who fought on the front lines in the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions. The 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, were assigned to the French Army in April 1918. In this post the Hellfighters saw much action, fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne, as well as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. For his valiant and brave actions during World War I, Private Henry Johnson became the first American to receive the Criox de Guerre, and an additional 170 members of the 369th were also awarded the French medal.

The 370th Infantry Regiment, given the name "Black Devils" by Germans, were also assigned to the French Army. This was the only unit to be commanded by Black officers. Corporal Freddie Stowers was a standout soldier among the 371st Infantry. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Stowers lead troops through a German line in spite of receiving mortal wounds. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor shortly after his death, but it was not processed and awarded until 1991.


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Selected Photographs

black soldiers on a ship with raised fists and waving

The Famous 369th Arrive in New York City (NAID 26431290)

troops in formation doing exercises

Black American Cantonment behind the Lines on the Marne Front, France (NAID 26431302)

a unit of troops marching in New York City in front of the Flat Iron building

Parade of Returned Fighters (369th Colored Infantry) (NAID 26431318)

soldiers on board the France facing and smiling at camera

Famous Colored Regiment arrives Home on the France (NAID 26431322)

onlookers dressed in winter clothes at a parade

Relatives and Friends Cheering the 369th Infantry as they Pass in Parade (NAID 26431324)

people lined on the side of a street waving American flags

Crowds waiting for the Parade of the Famous 369th Colored Infantry (NAID 26431332)

military musicians with their instruments standing in a parade

Lt. James Europe and his Famous Band of the 369th on Parade on Fifth Avenue (NAID 26431342)

a man in long coat and top hat standing and smiling at the camera

Shelton Smith reporting to Camp Devens (NAID 26431384)

male soldier in uniform holding a rifle standing in front of a wooden building

Member of the Telephone and Telegraph Batallion at Camp Upton, Long Island (NAID 26431436)

columns of soldiers marching in the street with people lining the street

369th Infantry Marching in Parade in their Honor, down Fifth Avenue in New York (NAID 26431456)

2 soldiers sitting in the grass reading a Bulletin

Sunny Afternoon in Hyde Park, London with Bulletin of the American Red Cross for Company (NAID 26431514)

men dressed in civilian clothing walking in pairs out of town

Soldiers Leaving Kalamazoo, Michigan (NAID 26431520)

man sitting on the back of a truck, dressed in a long coat, smiling at camaera

Wounded Soldiers Arrives at Red Cross Hospital No. 5, Auteuil, France (NAID 45497222)

soldiers gather around a cart of chocolate, cigarettes, etc

Red Cross Workers Distributing Goods to Wounded Soldiers in Auteuil, France (NAID 45497224)

5 soldiers sitting at a table (2 standing) outdoors, eating out of skillets

Troops in France Enjoy a Meal of Porkchops and Coffee (NAID 45501312)

unit of soldiers in uniform with rifles over their shoulder marching in columns

New York's Black Regiment Leaves for Training Camp Marching up Fifth Avenue (NAID 45503132)