When the United States pauses this spring to reflect on the centennial of the nation’s entry into World War I, a local historian hopes one group of Americans will not be forgotten.
More than 350,000 African-Americans served in the armed forces during the Great War, defending democracy and rights they were denied at home. They were subject to the draft but found that they were segregated to two black infantry divisions, led by white commanders, and a cadre of laborers called the Pioneers.
“Some black men had fought in the Spanish American War,” said Joe Mattox, historian for American Legion Wayne Miner Post 149, which is named for black Kansas City soldier Wayne Miner. But “there was always the belief that African-Americans couldn’t be good fighters.”
Many blacks saw the war as an opportunity to prove to themselves and to whites that they were just as capable and deserving of basic freedoms. Others were less enthusiastic.
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“There was great division in the community about why black people, black men, should fight in World War I,” said Mattox. “Some said no, they’re lynching black folks in America. Why would we be going to Europe to fight? There was a lot of opposition. The black community was torn. Finally (W.E.B.) Du Bois said, ‘Well, if you go over there, then come back and fight for your freedoms here.’ They did that.”
One of those returning soldiers was Charles H. Houston, who became a civil rights giant and director of litigation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His work paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court ruling that struck down segregated schools. Houston, who died four years before that decision, was nicknamed “the man who killed Jim Crow.”
Another was Homer B. Roberts, a Kansas Citian who came home from the war and became the first African-American in the country to begin his own automobile dealership. He began selling cars from the curb in 1919. He had a relationship with the white dealerships, but his race prevented him from being a salesman for them. He eventually built his own dealership for more than $70,000 at 19th and Vine streets.
Houston and Roberts were among many blacks who came back from the war with a new perspective, a new confidence and a new resolve to fight for the rights and freedoms they were entitled to.
“That is something that we refer to as the ‘New Negro,’ ” said Geri Sanders, archivist for the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, referring to a term coined by philosopher Alain Locke. “A lot of people would be trying to uplift themselves and make better choices and do better for the next generation. Almost everyone who went came back with a new-found philosophy. Then we go from the end of the war directly into the Harlem Renaissance period. It’s an intellectual, cultural, artistic explosion. So many different people are looking at what they do in a different way.”
The National World War I Museum and Memorial is custodian to hundreds of thousands of items and documents relating to World War I, but it has relatively little — “about zero” — information about African-Americans from Kansas City in the war, said archivist Jonathan Casey.
An exception is Henry Johnson, who posthumously was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action in World War I. He came home a hero. There is a little information about Miner, who was killed performing an act of bravery. And the museum has little information about the 20 other black Kansas Citians who died while serving in the war.
“Not too many black soldiers wrote letters home because many of them were illiterate,” Mattox said. “So you don’t have that type of documentation.”
Of the 21 black Kansas Citians who died, at least 17 succumbed to disease, according to a Missouri Valley Historical Society report from the 1920s. Specifics of each case are not listed, but the Spanish Flu claimed more lives in 1918 and 1919 than the number of people killed in the fighting.
The historical report has a section titled “Heroes of the Colored Race.” “The members of this Race who gave their lives in the cause of Civilization, are here separately reprinted, that the people may know and recognize them as members of their own Race,” the report said.
African-Americans are not segregated on the “We Are the Dead” plaque in Memory Hall at Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial. Senior curator Doran Cart said a decision was made at the time to list together the names of all 441 Kansas Citians who died in the war. More information about each person can be found at an electronic kiosk at the museum. African-Americans are denoted with an asterisk.
The United States declared war on Germany and the Central Powers on April 6, 1917, in response to unrestricted submarine warfare and other German transgressions. President Woodrow Wilson said African-Americans needed to serve the country by joining the Pioneer unit of the Army as laborers and stevedores, Mattox said.
“Service to the country in any way that you can do it, whether it’s digging ditches or trenches or loading trains, is valuable service,” Mattox said. “But sometimes you want, as a group of people, you want to say, ‘We are fighters.’ ”
The War Department created the 92nd and 93rd Divisions for black soldiers. The American Expeditionary Force was commanded by Missourian Gen. John J. Pershing, who was nicknamed “Black Jack” after having led black Buffalo Soldiers in the Indian Wars and black troops at San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War.
Pershing “loaned” the 93rd Division, of which Henry Johnson was a part, to the French command, and they remained at the front for 191 days. Johnson’s regiment was known as the Harlem Hellfighters, and they were awarded the Croix de Guerre, the French honor for bravery. Johnson was cited for heroism after he fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat and killed several enemy soldiers in the Argonne Forest in France in 1918. He rescued a fellow soldier and was wounded 21 times. He was nicknamed “Black Death.”
Johnson came home and marched in a Fifth Avenue victory parade in New York. The Army used Johnson on recruitment posters and to sell Victory War Stamps. But he could not return to his job as a rail porter because of his war injuries, and he died poor. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Johnson was not awarded the Medal of Honor until June 2, 2015 — 97 years later.
The 92nd Division, of which Wayne Miner was a part, was also called the Buffalo Soldier Division. It saw action under American command in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive at the end of the war. Miner was killed by shrapnel in the final hours of fighting on the Western Front after volunteering to deliver ammunition to a besieged machine gun post.
When the American Legion was founded after the war, it remained a question whether black veterans could be admitted. Southern states said no, Mattox said, but Missouri said yes. The Wayne Miner Post 149 was organized in Kansas City in September 1919 and is still active.
The United States armed forces were not integrated until President Harry Truman ordered it in 1948.
The World War I Centennial Commission announced this month that the national observance April 6 will take place in Kansas City. Details have yet to be finalized, but President Donald Trump and foreign heads of state have been invited.
“We’ve got this national celebration coming up, and there are all kind of stories about Americans in World War I,” Mattox said. “What I want is to make sure that when we do the celebration those three groups — the 92 and 93rd Divisions and the Pioneers — are recognized.”
Jonathan Casey, archivist at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, will talk about African-American involvement in the war 2 to 4 p.m. March 4 at the Black Archives of Mid-America, 1722 E. 17th Terrace, Kansas City.