Many thanks to writer and historian Jessie Serfilippi, who gathered research on this important topic for me to create the character Malachi and who now writes this entry:
Black Americans in WWI: The “Buffalo Soldier Division”
During World War I, the United States Army was still segregated. This didn’t stop Black people from serving in all branches of the military, in both military and civilian roles. They courageously battled not only the enemy at large, but also faced racism from the white officers, soldiers, and civilians with whom they served.
Not Allowed to Serve
At first, not all Black men who wanted to serve were allowed to. Before a draft was put into place in 1917, many eager men were turned away because the US had capped how many Black men could serve in the army. Once the draft was put in place, it was incredibly discriminatory, targeting Black men before white men, meaning in some cases Black men with families to take care of were drafted before single white men. Yet the draft gave many Black men a previously denied opportunity: they could finally fight for their country.
Some wanted to fight out a sense of civic duty, while others wanted to fight to prove themselves equal to the white men serving beside them. Some wanted to fight to show the love and patriotism they had for their country and others hoped that at the end of the war, they would be seen as equal to their white peers.
The 92nd Division
There are countless examples of valor during WWI, but one in particular comes from the “Buffalo Soldier Division,” or the 92nd Division, specifically the 367th Regiment. The regiment was comprised solely of Black soldiers, many of whom were from Virginia, who were part of the National Army. While they fought in France, they were the only Black soldiers to serve under American officers, both Black and white, and not French officers, who often treated Black soldiers far better than the Americans did. Many of the American officers were blatant with their racism, even telling the French civilians who they were all there to protect that the Black soldiers were rapists they should fear. Despite the fear-mongering white officers and soldiers, many of the French people received the Black soldiers with open arms and treated them with respect.
Combat in France: 367th Regiment
The men of the 367th Regiment served alongside French troops, and sometimes troops from North and West Africa. The major combat they saw occurred in November of 1918, in the Argonne Forest of France.
The Mensue-Argonne Battles were the largest and deadliest frontline battles any US soldiers saw. Their major objective was to capture the railroad hub at Sedan to break the German supply train—crucial to breaking down the German’s defenses.
The 367th Regiment in particular was tasked with dislodging the Germans from the heights of Meuse. The Argonne Forest was dark, and there were many ravines, cliffs, and uneven terrain. While navigating the difficult and unfamiliar landscape, the soldiers faced shellings, machine gun fire, and gassings. When they finally emerged from the Argonne Forest, they entered into “No-Man’s Land,” or the space between their own lines and the German’s, where they could easily be shot by the enemy. In addition to dodging enemy fire, they had to make their way carefully through the barbed wire the Germans had strewn throughout the space.
Despite not receiving much formal training, they made their way through, throwing grenades into German trenches and engaging in close combat, known as trench warfare. They fought until Armistice, or the end of the war.
After the War
When the Black soldiers returned home, many quietly resumed the occupations they’d left behind to serve their country. Some recorded being disabled, having been injured by machine gun fire or mustard gas during combat. Some married and raised families, or returned to the families they’d had to leave behind during the war.
They were not widely celebrated for the service, and the US did little to acknowledge them. Yet while the US often did not recognize the valor shown by Black soldiers, the French awarded the 367th Regiment the Croix de Guerre for their bravery on the frontlines.
Oftentimes, the individual names of soldiers are lost to history, and history becomes something distant and intangible. When some of the men described simply as “soldiers” are given names and photographs, history becomes more relatable and real. Here are just a few of the Black Virginians who fought for the United States in France during WWI.
John Henry Beamer was born on October 4th, 1895, to Alicia Johsnon and Hezekia Beamer in Oldtown, VA. He was Methodist and a voter, and was educated in business at High Point in North Carolina. Before the war, he was a farmer. During the war, he became a corporal in the National Army. When the war ended, he became a teacher. He married Carrie Beamer and together they had at least one child, a son named Edward Beamer.
George Halstead was born in Norfolk, VA, to Emma Ward and Henry Halstead on December 16, 1887. He attended public school at Norfolk Mission and was a butler before the war began. During the war, he served as a private in the National Army, and fought in the Oise-Aisne Defensive Sector during September of 1918. He was awarded the Victory Medal and Medal for Democratic Liberty by the City of Norfolk. When the war ended, he continued working as a butler.
John Nash was born on September 15, 1896 in Norfolk County, VA, to Josephine and William Nash. He worked as a timekeeper and laborer for G. Johnson prior to joining the National Army as a private. Before leaving for France, he was stationed at Camp Lee in Virginia. He fought in a battle before La Chapelle and in the Argonne Forest. When he returned home, he continued working as a laborer.
You can see photographs of and learn about the lives of Black Virginians who served during WWI here.
You can learn more about the 92nd Division and another all-Black division, the 93rd Division, here.
Learn more here about how Black soldiers were not treated equally and how when the war ended, they were not widely celebrated.
The 92nd Division fought in both WWI and WWII. Learn more about their service in both wars here.
For information on the Meuse Argonne Offensive, check out this website.
Teachers: check out this lesson plan on soldiers in the 92nd and 93rd Divisions during WWI!