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FROM HEROES TO HANGED MEN: African-American Soldiers in WWI (Part 1 of 2)

FROM HEROES TO HANGED MEN: African-American Soldiers in WWI (Part 1 of 2)

When the United States entered World War I, African Americans saw it as a chance to serve their country. It was also an opportunity to show a segregated America, they were not second-class citizens, but viable contributing members of their Country, for which they were willing to die.


But they did not find the respect they hoped would be realized when they stood beside their white counterparts on the battlefields of Europe. In fact, what they found was more of the segregation, hatred, and disrespect they sought to overcome.


Before the start of World War I, African Americans were turned away from military service, despite the willingness to serve. They were seen as inferior; lacking the intelligence and ability needed for military service.


However, when the United States declared war against Germany in April of 1917, it was apparent the standard volunteer system could not adequately raise an Army without creating the draft. African American men from around the country joined seeing it as an opportunity to prove they were worthy of equal treatment in the United States.

Although technically eligible for many positions in the Army, very few blacks got the opportunity to serve in combat units. Most were limited to labor battalions. The first black troops sent overseas belonged to service units.

But as the war raged on, the situation grew desperate in France. They turned to the United States to send men. Gen. John Pershing, promised them four American regiments, deciding to give them the African American 93d Division since the French, used French colonial troops from Senegal, and knew how to work with black soldiers in combat.


The 369th Infantry was the first regiment of the 93d Division to reach France. After three months with the Supply Unit, the 369th received orders to join the French 16th Division. For nearly a month they held their position against the Germans, earning them the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

France awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre, along with 171 individual awards for exceptional gallantry in action. They were heroes headed back home to a country they would soon learn would never recognize them as heroes. They had helped win the war, but now they would face the worst battle of their lives.

At the age of six, living in Chicago, Illinois, I saw Paris and San Francisco for the first time between the pages of my World Book Encyclopedias. That began my love affair with books and magazines. It also led me to declare that when I grew up I would live in San Francisco and Paris. While most of us never get to achieve our childhood dreams, I have been able to do so. I've lived in San Francisco since 1984 and got my first apartment in Paris in 2001. For nearly 18 years I have traveled between my two favorite cities on earth, while I enjoy a life of writing, coaching, and speaking. Life for me is a banquet and I am savoring every moment!

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