By Margaret E. Wagner
“No son has ever left home whose parents had greater pride in him than we have in you,” prominent District of Columbia attorney William L. Houston wrote to his son, Charles, on September 20, 1918.
A 1915 honors graduate from Amherst College, Houston taught English at Howard University before enlisting in the army in 1917, believing that the obligations of American citizenship meant “sharing every risk the country was exposed to.” When in June 1917, the U.S. government opened a training camp for black officers at Des Moines, Iowa, Houston became one of the 1,250 officer candidates.
In this time of escalating racial tensions (the East St. Louis race riot occurred in early July) Houston and his classmates faced morale-battering treatment. After the army’s Inspector General cautioned them about “racial disorders” in a manner that, Houston later reported, “prohibited us from protecting ourselves against the aggression of others,” some black officer candidates resigned. Of those who persisted, the army commissioned 639; 1st Lt. Houston was the youngest.
Originally detailed to the 368th Infantry, Houston requested and received a transfer to the 351st Field Artillery Regiment, 92nd Division, one of two African American combat divisions in the American Expeditionary Forces. Unlike men of the understrength 93rd Division, which gained fame and honors fighting under French command, soldiers of the 92nd had to fight both the Central Powers and the prejudice of their white officers. Stationed in western France, Houston and his men were embraced by the French people, who were “taken away with [Jazz] and our style of dancing,” he wrote in his diary. “The girls come after the boys in taxis and beg them to go to the dance. Colored boys are all the go.” Yet the black soldiers were repeatedly insulted and ill-used by their white countrymen, and that treatment changed Houston’s life.
“I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
After earning a law degree from Harvard, he spent the remainder of his life battling prejudice with such skill that he became known as “the man who killed Jim Crow.” His Great War diary and other memorabilia are included in the William LePre Houston Family Papers in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Margaret E. Wagner is a senior writer-editor at the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress preserves and provides access to the most comprehensive collection of World War I holdings in the nation. Explore the Great War at loc.gov/wwi.