The WWI Experience for African Americans: Sowing the Seeds of Civil Rights

by Sherri Goudy

“First your country, then your rights!” With these words, W.E.B. Dubois urged blacks to support the war and that their fight for democracy abroad would surely result in democracy at home.  Although their treatment before, during, and after the war is the worst that any American soldier has ever experienced, they did not surrender their fight for freedom.

WWI’s impact on the civil rights movement is profound and continues today.  As recently as 2015, the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor, was awarded posthumously to Pvt. Henry Johnson whose valor and sacrifice on the French front lines during WWI had not been recognized by the American government.  He is one of only 2 African American WWI soldiers to be awarded this honor, both of whom received their awards long after their sacrifice had been made.

WWI was a momentous period for African Americans in many ways.  In 1914, as war began in Europe, the Great Migration in America of over 500,000 southern blacks to the north began. African Americans were subjected to Jim Crow segregation, political and social oppression, and countless horrific indignities in the south. Wartime opportunity gave hope to these individuals, that they would find jobs, better pay, and better treatment than they were facing in the south.

Conditions in the north did not prove to be much better.  Although there were opportunities for jobs and better pay, “separate but equal” caused bitter race relations.  Nevertheless, blacks continued to persevere and as war was declared by America in 1917, African Americans joined the effort for the “war to make the world safe for democracy.”

As men came forward to enlist for service, many African Americans were denied entry or leadership positions for physical reasons.  Colonel Charles Young had a bright future as a military leader, serving many of those years at Wilberforce University where he taught Military Tactics and Technology courses.  At the outbreak of WWI, he was medically retired by the government.  He asked for reconsideration and upon being denied, he set out on a historic 500-mile horseback ride from Wilberforce, Ohio to Washington, D.C. Though he had proven his physical stamina and capability to serve and lead troops, the decision of his retirement was not reversed.  He was however kept on an active duty officers list and served in Ohio recruiting and training black soldiers.

Photo 1 ColChasYoung1919

In Springfield, Alfred Howard wanted to enlist to serve.  Standing 6 foot 7 inches tall, he had “difficulty in passing city draft board” due to his height.  Though one physician passed him due to his “splendid physique” another doctor denied him due to his height.  In this local article dated August 8, 1917, he is shown standing next to Clarence Smith who stood 5 foot 4 inches tall who had no problem passing the physical requirements.

Photo 2 Colored Giant Aug 8, 1917

Over 400,000 African American soldiers enlisted or were drafted into service by the government which denied them so much.  Most of these men were segregated and put to work in labor units.  Half of these soldiers were sent overseas, and 40,000 of them became part of 2 black combat divisions – the 92nd and 93rd.  The 93rd Division was further divided into 4 regiments, one of which was the 372nd Infantry which included Black soldiers from the Ohio National Guard.  On November 10, 1917 the Springfield Daily News reported that 218 black men from Springfield, Ohio enlisted and were sent to Camp Sheridan. All but 65 of these men went on to serve with the 372nd in France.

Photo 3 Two Hundred and Eighteen Colored Boys are in Camp

One of the men who served with the 372nd was Springfield resident Willard Gilmore.

Photo 4 Pvt Willard Gilmore

He told the Springfield News Sun in 1982 that he voluntarily enlisted because “We loved our country. Although things were not good for us, it was still our home… I didn’t need anyone to force me to protect my home.”

Photo 5 Gilmore 1982

Pvt. Gilmore kept a scrapbook about the 372nd, which is part of the Clark County Historical Society’s collection.  In it, are newspaper clippings about the men that he served with, many of them from Ohio: PVT. Elmer Underwood, PFC. Maceo Burns, CPL. Lee Freeman, PVT. Homer Lawson, PVT Charles Hamilton among others. Some of these men wrote letters home to their families, which were published in the newspapers.  In a letter from PVT Robert W Smith, he writes about the conflict and the progress they were making, “We have gained quite a number of miles on the Huns and the boys have captured thousands of them, also big German guns.  We have got them on the run and are holding them there… German soldiers call us “the black Devils of Uncle Sam.”

Photo 6a Pvt Smith letter

Photo 6b Pvt Smith letter

Photo 6c Pvt Smith letter

In another letter, Gilmore himself wrote home to his father and told him about Thanksgiving in the trenches. “For my Thanksgiving, I had bread, beans, and coffee. Some dinner, but very glad to have that.”

Photo 7 Willard Gilmore letter

In France, he and the other men of the 372nd, faced combat situations for 13 months, the longest of any soldier, black or white, during WWI.  They fought gallantly and were recognized and honored by the French with the Croix de Guerre (France’s highest military honor).  There was also a monument erected in France dedicated “In memory of the Members of the 372nd US Infantry killed in action.”

Sadly, the US Government did not properly recognize or honor these men during or after the war.   Willard Gilmore did not receive any recognition from his home country until 1982. On November 5, 1982, PVT Willard Gillmore and 5 of his comrades were honored by the State of Ohio with the Ohio Distinguished Service Medal “for gallantry in action.”

Photo 8 Willard Gilmore recognition

Photo 9 Willard Gilmore recognition 2

 

Photo 10 Willard Gilmore recognition 3

African Americans showed their patriotism despite segregation and oppression during WWI.  The role that blacks served in WWI is often overshadowed by the Civil War and WWII.  However, this period in history could be described as one of the most pivotal for blacks because it changed so much of their experience.  They asserted their right for citizenship and equal treatment on a level never seen before in American history.  The civil rights movement was born out of this era, and the true potential of the United States and what it stands for was never demanded less.

Let us know what you think.  And join us for our next blog about Camp Life for the soldiers from Clark County preparing to go Europe.

 

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Women and WWI: Organizing, Serving, and Working for a Cause Part 2: Serving and Working for the War

by Sherri Goudy

A century ago, as America pledged allegiance to join the bloody battlefield already in motion, the men of this country prepared for war.  They left their homes, farms, jobs, and towns to join the 60 million men already fighting across the sea.  Over 5 million American men joined and fought in WWI, and in their absence women had no choice but to fill the gaps.  Women went to work on the home front and overseas, and forever changed the labor force in America.

Women at home kept the farms and factories running. New jobs popped up as the formation of munitions factories and other war-based industries arose, and women filled those jobs as well. They maintained their household duties and spent full workdays outside of the home.  Women became single heads of households in unprecedented numbers.

In Springfield, women were seeking opportunities to learn about automobiles and the possibility of driving trucks for the war effort. In April 1917, women attended a class at the YMCA about how to “Master Mysteries of the Automobile.” The article states that one participant of the class said, “that all women who can and should be prepared to help in the case of war.”

Photo 1 April 15 1917 pg 10

Articles were published over the next few months asking women to take jobs on the railroad.  The article makes sure to mention that women “will be paid the same wages as men.”

Photo 2 April 25 1917 pg 15

In August, a photo of a woman working on the Railroad in Jersey City was published in the Springfield Daily News.  Although the tone seems to mock the woman being photographed, it is certainly a common attitude for this time.  The caption under the photo reads “This happy and husky woman railroader has just finished giving the engine a thorough inspection when the photo was taken.  She looks a bit olly, but she doesn’t mind at all, for she knows she is doing her bit for Uncle Sam.  She is one of the many thousands of women who are going to keep American industries going while the men are away to war.”

Photo 3 August 20 1917 pg 6 photo also

Regardless of the tone with which women stepping up to the call of duty had to contend with, they embraced their new role and opportunities to prove themselves.  Mary Gore, secretary to the Springfield city engineer declared “You cannot stop the women.” Her progressive thoughts are well laid out in this article where she discusses women’s role in handling issues from the unique perspective of being a woman.  “Opportunities await the women on every side today… They are being recognized and are being better paid because they have proved that they can do the work just as well as men, and can be depended upon.”

Photo 4 May 6 1917 pg 14 part 2 of 3

Photo 5 May 6 1917 pg 14 part 2 of 3

Photo 6 May 6 1917 pg 14 part 3 of 3

In October, as the men of Springfield who had been drafted were preparing to go to training camps, a plea was published in the Springfield Daily News, for 1 million women to go to work.

Photo 7 October 10 1917 pg 9

While women were filling the holes left in the workforce at home, women also began to serve in the military.  As already discussed many women served as volunteers in the Red Cross and as nurses.  They also drove ambulance and supply trucks directly on the battlefield. Although the army refused to officially enlist women, the were permitted to volunteer.  The Army Signal Corps recruited more than 200 women, most of whom were bilingual to serve as telephone operators.  These “hello girls” were trained by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to operate switchboards and enabled communications within the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and the allied forces.  Although they were serving the military, were subject to military discipline, and some were even praised by their male comrades as “Soldiers of the Switchboard,” they were denied military titles, status, and benefits by the United States Army.

There were women, however, who did enlist officially in the military.  The Marine Corps and Coast Guard admitted women into their ranks.  But by far, the largest number of women who enlisted and received benefits were part of the Navy.

After war was declared in America and military branches needed to increase their ranks, the Navy remained critically shorthanded. The number of ships increased from 200 to 1000, but there were not enough people to man them.  Due to vague language in the Naval Act of 1916, the Naval Reserve force was to consist of “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense.” This gave the Navy a new resource and 13,000 women joined the ranks, freeing men who once served in clerical and administrative positions to serve aboard ships.  The female Naval service members were called Yeomen, and they served by carrying out operations which included radio operators, stenographers, nurses, pharmacists, messengers, chauffeurs, mechanics, truck drivers, cryptographers, fingerprint experts, chemists, telephone operators, and munitions makers.

Across the US, women were asked to join the Navy, and propaganda posters like this one appealed directly to them.

Photo 8 Woman navy recruit poster wwi

WWI left an incredible legacy for the world, the United States, and its citizens.  There was no such thing as “getting back to normal” once the war was over.  Life was changed forever, and this is clearly exemplified by the evolution of gender roles that really started to change during this time. Women demonstrated their abilities to lead and handle “man’s work” in the face of total war.  They would continue to see ranks and positions open to them in the workforce and military.  And in 1920, the 19th Amendment secured their right to a political voice. Although not without tension and conflict, the movement for women’s equality was fostered and began to see success because of WWI.

Next time we will discuss the contributions of African Americans during WWI.

Let us know what you think and what you want us to write about!