African Americans’ Military Service in World War I

African Americans comprised 13% of active duty manpower during World War I with roughly 200,000 being deployed to Europe. They served with distinction in the American Expeditionary Force and French Army, but their service and contributions are often forgotten. 


When the U.S. declared war on Germany, in April 1917, racial discrimination and segregation policies had been in place in America for 21 years (1896 Plessy v. Ferguson).   Despite those “separate but equal” policies, thousands of loyal African Americans enlisted for U.S. military service.  The Army established four segregated units of African American soldiers during World War I while the Navy’s segregation policy, at the time, accepted very few African Americans.  The Marines accepted none.  A majority of African Americans served in supply or labor battalions, but a few units actually went into battle overseas.

The 369th regiment, known as “the Harlem Hellfighters,” was one of a few African American units that saw action in Europe and they spent more than six months on the front lines—longer than any other American unit during the war.  They never surrendered an inch of Allied territory and not a single soldier was captured.  Many African American soldiers, including Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts, received the Croix de Guerre from the French government for their service and were hailed as heroes when they returned home.  While African Americans saw limited naval action during World War I, one of them, Edward Donohue Pierson, also earned the French Croix de Guerre for valor when he was wounded aboard the USS Mount Vernon when it was torpedoed off the coast of France.  The 369th, 370th, 371st, 372nd, and the 1st battalion of the 367th regiment—all African American units–received the Croix de Guerre.

In 1917, John Henry (“Dick”) Turpin became the first African American chief petty officer, the Navy’s highest enlisted rank at the time. Turpin enlisted in 1896 and survived the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898. A chief gunner’s mate, he was one of few African American sailors allowed to serve during World War I.  Not until 1932 were African Americans allowed into the Navy again and then only as stewards and mess attendants.

After the War ended in 1918, Congress authorized a segregated hospital for African American veterans who served in World War I. The hospital opened in 1923 in Tuskegee, Alabama, and continues in service today.


Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts:;;;

369th Regiment:; memorial:

African Americans in World War I:;;


Historian, Veterans Health Administration

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