Racial Conflicts in the Great War

African-American participation & anti-German sentiment in World War I

Two members of the 505th Engineers show how they fought overseas. Note the Imperial German helmet taken as a trophy (National Archive)

TThey called it the “Great War.” With over nine million soldiers killed, World War I was the bloodiest fight to ever take place in recorded history until that point. America had its own local traumas in a time of total war. It occurred during one of the worst periods of oppression of Black people in the United States since the end of slavery. Jim Crow policies institutionalized segregation and sanctioned racism.

This was not the only racial tension present in the war era. With the sinking of the Lusitania, the discovery of the Zimmerman Telegram, and the entering of the United States into the war on the Allied side, there was a new wave of anti-German sentiment across the country. German soldiers and even German Americans were despised and described as “Huns.” In propaganda posters, they were depicted as barbaric beasts. German immigrants faced new discrimination and abuse from their fellow citizens.

“Destroy this mad brute “— United States propaganda (Harry R. Hopps; 1917)

African-American participation in the Great War occasioned a crossing of these racial conflicts. Newspapers from the time represent this well. They show a fascination with African-American soldiers fighting Germans, and many articles with anti-German language are quick to comment on the role of Black fighters in defeating the Germans.

While there is a celebration of African-American soldiers in the news record, this served to deride the German soldiers and ultimately maintain the racial hierarchy of the “progressive” era.

Fear of Black and German co-belligerence

It was feared that African Americans would identify more with the Central Powers than with the Allied side. Why would people of color rally behind a nation that was systematically oppressing them?

As German Americans faced antagonism, there was a concern that Black Americans would come to see them as commonly persecuted brethren rather than as the enemy. In fact, one Black man was reported as saying, “The Germans ain’t done nothin’ to me, and if they have, I forgive ’em” (quoted in Black Manhatten, pp. 232).

African Americans were believed to be gullible, easy targets for the claims of German propaganda (Ziegger, pp. 129). One article describes an Austrian who was indicted in violation of the Espionage Act for telling a Black soldier “that Germany loved the Colored race and would establish them under an autonomous government in certain parts of the United States should the Teutons [Germans] win the war.” However, this same man told others “that the Germans would cut off the ears and arms and gouge out the eyes of any American Colored fighters.” Both rumors — of German kindness and of German brutality toward people of color — were spread in an attempt to dissuade Black support of the Allied effort.

Wartime American journalists presented an opposing claim: it is the German army who is terrified of Black soldiers.

Black soldiers as psychological warfare

Reporters boasted about the psychological effect the African-American presence had on German soldiers. A rumor spread among the German troops that Black soldiers cut off the ears of their prisoners (resembling the reputation of German soldiers). The German army was said to offer a reward of four hundred marks for the capture alive of each Black soldier. A German soldier is reported as saying that “throughout the war, German soldiers lived in great fear and even terror of the negroes and it was in order to overcome this fear rewards were offered.” The Germans referred to the 370th Infantry Regiment as “Black Devils.”

German soldiers are described as viewing Black troops as armies of supermen. A captured German line officer explains his failure to break through the enemy line with, “It is the Colored Americans.” From this framing, the German army is not to be avoided with dread but to be pursued with confidence.

Other papers highlight German treachery toward Black soldiers. Several tell the story of “German trickery” in which Germans appeared to Black soldiers and shouted, “Kamerad,” so that the American soldiers did not shoot. After this, the German soldiers threw hand grenades at them, killing one of the Black soldiers. As a result, “the negroes are full of the spirit of revenge.” In another story, a Black soldier tells how his comrades were shot and beaten to death after being taken prisoner by the German army.

Do the Germans cower in fear of the Black soldiers, or do they respond with ruthless cruelty? If the intended effect is to dissuade African Americans from identifying with the German people and to encourage them to join in the fight, then it does not matter. In either case, promoting these accounts places the German decidedly in the category of “enemy.”

More than 350,000 African Americans served during World War I (National Archive)

Black participation a threat to Jim Crow

Of course, African Americans were not the only intended audience for this media. Many white Americans did not want people of color participating in the war, and they feared this would aid the advancement of Civil Rights in the post-war years.

Part of the logic of Jim Crow was that men who do not fight cannot vote. Therefore, “the idea of arming blacks and training them to kill Germans threatened to undermine the whole Jim Crow system” (The Jim Crow Encyclopedia, 2:856). Indeed, many Black men hoped exactly this would result from their efforts, and they encouraged other men of color to join with patriotic enthusiasm.

On the one hand, white supremacists feared Black participation in the war as a threat to racial “stability”; on the other hand, some whites were disturbed by the thought of a draft emptying the nation of young white men and leaving only Black men behind.

A Black draft-dodger was considered more dangerous than a Black soldier. With over a hundred thousand eligible Black men failing either to register for the draft or to report when called (Mark Ellis, pp. 76), there was a strong incentive for media to target Black draft-dodgers or fence-sitters.

Illustrated by Frederick Strothmann in 1918.

This was accomplished by amplifying Black eagerness to fight and kill German soldiers. the Lexington Herald featured an article titled, “Negro Is Out of Practice, But He Will Fight Huns.” It discusses the perspectives of ten Black men in Dallas awaiting their physical examination. While their various motives differ, each is portrayed as more than willing to denounce the Kaiser and fight the “Huns.”

Some sources specifically address draft registration, such as a New York paper that tells of a Black man who was arrested for failing to register in the draft. It says that he resented the charge that he was avoiding service. On the contrary, he asserts, “I can fight any ten Germans you pick out. Just hold up the first ten Huns that come along here and I’ll show you what I can do. I’ll lick them one at a time or all together, and not even use a gun.” When asked why he didn’t register in the draft, he replied, “Oh, I know nothin’ about your fussy old laws. All I want to do is fight.” This would have been welcomed news for the white Americans who worried about a white-evacuated, Black-populated America.

Black soldiers in anti-German propaganda

One explanation for much of the fascination with the Black presence in the war was that the image of a “colored” soldier killing a German soldier served anti-German messaging. The African-American role was weaponized to ridicule the German army.

In Jim Crow America, the notion of Germans dying at the hands of people of color would have been viewed as especially insulting to the Central Powers. There was a racially-apocalyptic significance attributed to the African-American presence in the fight.

Some articles report extraordinary accomplishments of African-American soldiers against the German soldiers, such as “1,000 Huns Captured by Colored Troops.” However, here there is a tone of accidental success, and the victory of Black soldiers is not attributed to military superiority but to the chance of the circumstances. Hence, an article titled “One Colored Man Held Up Hun Army” claims, “It was perfectly unconscious.”

For Germans to be captured by Black soldiers was seen as a display of extraordinary incompetence.

Decorated soldiers of the 369th return home with their French Croix de Guerre awards (National Archive)

Commending Black efforts

Some papers do commend the skill of Black soldiers. One reporter writes,

“American negro troops proved their value as fighters in the line east of Verdun on June 12, it is now permissible to state. The Germans attempted a raid in that sector, but were repulsed completely by the negroes.”

The article emphasizes the outstanding performance of the Black soldiers and their prompt and careful execution of orders.

Another contains extended praise from General Pershing for the “colored troops.” He states,

“I cannot commend too highly the spirit shown among the colored combat troops, who exhibit fine capacity for quick training and eagerness for the most dangerous work.”

What follows is a lengthy discussion of the effort of Black troops in the American Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Civil War.

This sadly is not typical but exceptional. Ultimately, despite

“all efforts blacks made to show themselves loyal citizens, they won no respite from discrimination and injustice, in small matters or great” (Barbeau and Henri, pp. 14).

War after the war

The ending of war did not bring peace for Black Americans.

In the post-war years, there was only an increase in racism and racial terror, evidence that America would not permit wartime efforts to affect white supremacy. Racial subordination was reasserted with violence. The Ku Klux Klan was revived. At least nineteen Black soldiers were lynched in 1919. Black communities were attacked and hundreds of people were murdered during that year’s “Red Summer.” In some cities, Black veterans used their training and weaponry to protect against white mobs. Many were targeted because of their military service, sometimes white fellow servicemen initiating the attacks.

Black veteran L. B. Reed was hanged over the Sunflower River Bridge (Wiki Commons)

Fighting on the battlefield is only one of many important roles African Americans played during the Great War, and most of the contribution of Black men and women to the war effort took place outside of the trenches. But the inclusion of African Americans as soldiers brought racial collisions into the wartime conversation. American culture experienced the intersection of anti-Black racism and anti-German racism — and the disruption of white solidarity.

How would majority-white America handle the image of an African-American soldier defeating a white German soldier? The picture temporarily served American propaganda before being replaced with the tragically familiar scenery of white supremacy.

Secondary Sources:

Barbeau, Arthrur E. and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974.

Brown, Nikki L., ed. and Barry M. Stentiford, ed., The Jim Crow Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Brown, Nikki. Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women’s Activism from World War I to the New Deal. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Ellis, Mark. Race, War, and Surveillance: African Americans and the United States Government during World War I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. New York: Knopf, 1930.

Zieger, Robert H. America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.

Primary Sources:

“1,000 Huns Captured by Colored Troops.” Cleveland Advocate. August 17, 1918.

“Colored Soldier Best Fighter: White Colonel Says Black Americans Gamest Men in France.” Topeka Plaindealer. February 21, 1919.

“Colored Troops Win From Huns: American Negroes Prove Ability in Engagement East of Verdun.” Grand Rapids Press. July 1, 1918.

“Huns Call Us Barbarians.” Grand Forks Herald. August 28, 1918.

“Huns Fear Our Negroes.” Kansas City Star. September 10, 1918.

“Huns Held Wholesome Fear for U.S. Negro: Blacks Attract Great Attention in Coblenz.” Philadelphia Inquirer. January 26, 1919.

“Hun Loves Colored Soldier!.” Cleveland Advocate. July 6, 1918.

“Huns Thought Whole Army Was Colored.” Cleveland Advocate. November 16, 1918.

“‘I’ll Lick Ten Huns’ Says a Colored Man.” Cleveland Advocate. October 19, 1918.

“More Testimony About Army Cruelty Is Heard: Colored Soldier Tells of Shooting of Soldier and Beating of Soldier Prisoners.” News-Sentinel. January 25, 1922.

“Negroes Are Not Savages.” Topeka Plaindealer. November 9, 1917.

“Negro Is Out of Practice, But He Will Fight Huns.” Lexington Herald. May 19, 1918.

“Negro Soldiers Puzzle Huns.” Kansas City Star. July 18, 1918.

“Negro Troops Want Revenge for Treachery.” Twin Falls Daily News. September 10, 1918.

“One Colored Man Held Up Hun Army.” Cleveland Advocate. December 14, 1918.

“Praises the Negro Soldier: General Pershing Testifies to the Bravery of Colored Americans in France.” Miami Herald. July 14, 1918.

“White, Red and Black Warriors Oppose Huns.” Cleveland Advocate. August 10, 1918.

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Evan May

Evan May

Pastor | MABS, Reformed Theo. Seminary | @evan_may | http://evanemay.com | Husband to Rebekah, father of 3 | I write about theology, philosophy, and history.