African Americans made substantial contributions in WWI. By 1920, nearly one million Black Americans left the rural South in a movement called The Great Migration which would transform the economic, social and political landscape of the U.S.Share
In a nation with reinstated federal segregation, laws restricting civil rights and significant racial violence, Black communities met a war to “make the world safe for democracy,” with varied perspectives. Some, inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s call believed American involvement in the war would welcome a new era of freedom and democracy both at home and abroad. Participation in the war effort, for some, became a demonstration of patriotism and service, a confirmation of their right to equal citizenship within the nation. Others were skeptical, seeing participation as further sacrifice to prejudicial institutions that oppress and overlook African American sacrifice.
More than 350,000 African Americans served in World War I. Among those sent overseas, the majority served in support battalions, reflecting the belief that Black men were suited more for manual labor than front-line combat. The U.S. military did, however, create two combat divisions for African Americans—the 92nd and 93rd divisions—consisting of approximately 40,000 soldiers. The two units had vastly different experiences in France. The 92nd Division’s white officers characterized its soldiers as miscreants and, due to poor performance of one regiment, was used by the military to discount Black servicemen. On the other hand, the 93rd Division, and especially its 369th Infantry Regiment, which fought for the French Army, received wide acclaim for its combat performance, having two soldiers become the first Americans to receive the French military award for heroism, the Croix de Guerre.
When World War I ended in 1918, many intently awaited a civil rights “revolution.” Unfortunately, the war had little overall impact on societal sentiments toward Blacks or communities of color, and the hope for a self-determined and safe democracy remained unrealized at home. Black veterans faced continued discrimination, even violence, despite—and because of—their wartime service. Despite obstacles, African Americans were determined to change the status quo rather than accept the restrictions of Jim Crow. By 1920, nearly one million African Americans left the rural South for the North in a movement called The Great Migration, transforming economic, social and political life in the U.S. African Americans’ wartime participation and service became a powerful source of inspiration for Black communities across the country as they continued fighting to achieve social and political equality.
SUBJECTS: World History, Sociology
GRADE LEVELS: K-5, 6-8
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