Black Americans and the
First World War
If the theory that military participation brings rewards and recognition for minority groups had any validity, then black Americans would have been free and equal long before the twentieth century dawned. Sadly, however, the countervailing forces of racism and prejudice ensured that blacks remained second-class citizens, victims of segregation and discrimination, even though they had fought in all America's wars from the revolutionary conflict through to the Spanish-American war of 1896. In many ways the First World War was to be no exception to this depressing pattern: while black involvement in all aspects of the war effort was to become considerable, it was resisted by whites, and wartime race relations were to be marked by an intensification of violence. Nonetheless, fundamental changes of a more positive nature were taking place in the black situation, and, indeed, race violence was often a response to, and reflection of, the changes that had occurred. By the end of the war observers could write of "the new Negro problem" and of the "New Negro," and historians since have seen the origins of modern Afro-American history in this period— "the war had completed the destruction of the old status quo." 1
Whatever the subsequent views, the omens for change in race relations in prewar America were not good. Unlike white American women, who could point to considerable advances before 1914, black Americans could only look back on the previous twenty years with a sense of despair.