Post Classifieds

African Americans in WW1

By Joshua Alexander
On April 9, 2017

The Harlem Hellfighters,
Photo courtesy of (


In late June of 1914, a faction of Serbian nationalists, part of an assassin group known at the time as the “Black Hand,” assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia, igniting the tinder fueling the First World War. Leading up to this ill-fated war was a build-up of militarism and an obsession with advancing the latest weaponries, a proliferation of zealous nationalism, an entanglement of establishing alliances, and a tendency for imperial conquest, all characterizing European’s general mentality of the early twentieth-century.  Following this assassination, the escalation of mobilization and intense pressures began to reach its climax, eventually leading to the initial outbreak of this first global war, also known during the time as the “Great War” or “The War to End All Wars.”


On April 2, 1917, United States President Woodrow Wilson, who for four years tried his hardest to remain consistent with his isolationist and neutral policies during the war, called for a session with Congress, asking for a declaration of war against Germany and the other Central Powers.  Wilson had to accept that the U.S could no longer simply remain a passive player in the war across the Atlantic in Europe.  Germany proved this after they decided to sink an United States merchant ship, the Lusitania, through unrestricted submarine warfare specifically prohibited by international treaty.  The U.S was also angered by the German’s failed attempt in getting Mexico to invade the United States in retaliation against lands lost in the Mexican-American War decades earlier in what would become known as the Zimmerman Telegram.  


The United States, like stepping into a tenth round of a boxing match, finally entered the European stage for the Allied cause shortly after this declaration.  Upon arriving, American soldiers witnessed carnage, mayhem, death, and pure destruction, unparalleled and unlike anything ever seen before.  Along with the horrors of experiencing trench warfare, new technologies such as chemical weapons, machine guns, barbed wire, tanks, and artillery made this war all the deadlier.  Terrible diseases, such as the Spanish influenza, trench foot, lice, typhoid fever, malaria, and cholera all wreaked havoc in armies of both sides.  Altogether, sixteen million deaths can be attributed to this four-year colossal war, with ten million military personnel involved and two-thirds of these deaths a direct result of battle.


Even though this is one of the most deadliest, destructive, and catastrophic struggles to take place not just in the twentieth-century, but also in all of history, society has seemed to place it in their list of forgotten wars.  Last week, attempting to bring more public consciousness and express the importance, meaning, and legacy of this event,


UNC hosted a World War I and African-Americans presentation in the panorama room of the University Center. Both the Africana Studies department and Michener Library were responsible for putting together this exhibition, commemorating the anniversary of the United States’ entry and involvement with this war.


For two hours between 6 and 8 p.m., speakers presented a history of the war and America’s role during it.  The purpose was to also show how Blacks and African-Americans shaped and were involved with it.  Three guest speakers were present Wednesday day night, including Africana studies professor George Junne, UNC Alumnus William Esch, and Head of UNC Archival services Jay Trask.   


George Junne, a professor of Africana studies and a specialist on African Americans and film, the Black American West, the Civil War, and general African-American history and culture, gave a brief history of this war and how African-Americans took part in it.  


“Not every aspect about World War I can be presented or covered in just this short, two hour time frame.  Instead, our goal is touching on as many aspects as possible, giving the audience a greater perspective and clearer understanding of this war,” Junne said. “To consider as much as possible about WWI, we want to highlight on many different aspects of this war also, including economic, social, and political factors contributing to it.”  


Junne and all the other guest speakers endeavored to present these multiple underlying layers and various perspectives.


“I hope our audience absorbs a wide range of perspectives and history, from Africans and African-Americans to Native American Code Talkers alike,” Junne said.


Most assume, for example, that the battles making up WWI were only fought within the boundaries of continental Europe. Junne revealed this not to be necessarily the case.


One million died in East Africa alone as a direct consequence of WWI. A total of 500,000 Africans altogether were also deployed by British and French forces, with some doing labor work, while others doing the fighting.  At least 71,000 came from the French colonies of Tunisia, Senegal, and Madagascar.  South Africans were also instrumental in their support for the British against the fight with the Germans.


“No doubt were Africans and African-Americans helping their colonies achieve victory in this particular war,” Junne said.


Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Eritrea, Gambia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Tripoli are just to names a few African countries involved.  Even China declared war on Germany in 1917.


“Indeed, this was truly a world war,” Junne said.  


African-Americans also played an enormous role in the outcome and legacy of WWI.  At every step of the way did they fight, bleed, and die alongside their brothers in arms, despite facing immediate racial prejudice and segregation within their armed ranks.  Upon arriving in Europe, however, although trained in the States to be primed and ready for combat, according to Junne and the other presenters, they often found themselves performing dull, menial, and undesired manual work or tasks, such as unloading ships or cleaning latrines instead of combat duties.   


Take the all-African-American 369th regiment of the U.S. Army.  Upon reaching France, these soldiers immediately encountered this racial discrimination and assigned the kind of drudgery work mentioned earlier.  When the French Fourth Army, however, desperately needed reinforcements and near their breaking point, U.S. Army General John Pershing would send these fighters, also referred to as the “Harlem Hellfighters” to aid their ally in need.   


It is important to know, however, that although Pershing led a group of African-American soldiers known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” decades earlier in an attempt to capture revolutionary Pancho Villa in Mexico, he would ultimately turn his back on them, considering blacks inferior to whites.  “In fact,” according to an article by the History Channel, “Pershing went even further in his directive to the French Military Mission, writing that the black man lacked a “civic and professional conscience” and was a “constant menace to the American.”


At any rate, two individuals, both African-American, would distinguish and prove themselves to the French, who virtually ignored the advice of Pershing.  Sent along the Western edge of the Argonne Forest, Henry Johnson from Albany, New York, and another private named Needham Roberts of New Jersey, while on sentry duty, came under attack from German snipers on May 4, 1918.   


Johnson lobbed grenades as the Germans kept charging their position.  A German grenade hit Roberts.  Although wounded, the young private continued to pass along these small explosives to his comrade, Johnson, who kept launching them at the approaching enemy.  The grenades then ran out.  Johnson then picked up and began firing his weapon, but it quickly jammed as he was reloading.   


“By then, the Germans had surrounded the two privates, and Johnson used his rifle as a club until the butt splintered.  He saw the Germans attempting to take Roberts prisoner, and charged them with his only remaining weapon, a bolo knife,” The History Channel said.


Roberts and Johnson stood under constant fire for 190 consecutive days before the Germans finally retreated as more French and American forces arrived.  Having sustained 21 wounds and killing four Germans, while wounding at least 10 others, Johnson fainted as his allies approached his location.  His actions, however, prevented the Germans from breaking the line. The French never lost a soldier through capture or lost an inch of ground or their trenches.   


As a result of their heroic actions, Johnson and Roberts would become the first American soldiers to receive the coveted French medal Croix de Guerre.  Johnson also earned the Gold Palm in recognition for his valor.  Some 500 members of these “Harlem Hellfighters” of the 369th would also receive the Croix de Guerre.  When the 369th would return home and walk down New York’s Fifth Avenue, they would receive cheering, celebration, and praise from a welcoming parade of people.  This sentiment did not last long, however, for intolerance and prejudice quickly reared its ugly head once more in America.


“Some African-Americans, therefore, decided to stay in France after the war, finding more respect, dignity, and freedom there than within the United States,” concluded Junne.


William Esch, a retired veteran of twenty years in the Navy, former Weld County Sheriff Deputy, and UNC alumni and department scholar, also illuminated WWI through presenting the life and story of Eugene Bullard, famously recognized today as the first African-American pilot.  Esch, a former Criminal Justice major and African Studies minor at UNC, revealed how he came up with the idea of researching this individual.   


“Years ago,” Esch said, “while attending classes here at UNC, I was interested in the history of African-Americans and Africana interests overall.  I also recalled hearing the statement that ‘no African-American or black fighter pilots existed in WWI.’  That’s when I stumbled upon a yearbook collection in UNC’s Michener Library’s Archives, with two photographs of Eugene Bullard.”  


These two photographs led and paved the way for his paper to be presented on research day.


Eugene Bullard was born  on October 9, 1894 in Columbus, Georgia, to William Bullard and Josephine “Yokalee” Thomas, their seventh out 10 eventual children.  Eugene’s father could supposedly trace back their roots as far back as the American Revolution.  His mother, Josephine, was of Creek Indian descent, residing in Alabama before moving to Georgia.  She died very shortly in life, at the age of thirty-three, just when Eugene was five years old.  “From there on, Eugene’s father raised and prepared him for the journey of life,” stated Esch.


When Eugene turned eight, he left Columbus, Georgia in 1902.  “The catalyst for his early departure,” writes William I. Chivalette of the Air & Space Power Journal, “was the near unjust lynching of his father.”


“To Eugene, France was a country where men were treated based on who they were, regardless of his skin color or what he looks like,” Esch said.


He saw France, in other words, as a utopian paradise.


By August of 1914, Europe had plummeted into the deadly and catastrophic spiral of war.  Before the year was over, France alone would suffer roughly a half million in casualties.  “A lot of Eugene’s friends were on the casualty list,” notes Chivalette, “but Bullard, not yet 19 years old, was too young to be accepted to fight for his adopted country.”   


The young, ambitious, and determined adventurer then decided to join the French Foreign Legion, who accepted him when the army or air force did not. On October 9, 1914.


After five weeks of training, Eugene was sent to the Somme front towards the end of November 1914, where 300,000 Frenchman lost their lives by the end of the month.


“As much a warrior as an adventurer,” describes Chivalette.


Eugene participated in some of the most heavily contested battles of 1914 through 1916.” Not only participating in the battle of Somme, he also fought at Artios Ridge, Mont-Saint-Eloi, and German Positions at Sanchez and Hill 119.   


The battlefield that would really test this man's character came at the battle of Verdun, considered the largest and longest battles of the First World War.  Bullard and the 170th marched for three days and nights, before eventually arriving on the early morning of February 21, 1916 in the outskirts of Verdun, France.  In his words, it was like walking into the fiery, agonizing gates of hell.


“I thought I had seen fighting in other battles,” stated Bullard, “but no one has ever seen anything like Verdun – not before or ever since.”   


Codenamed Operation Execution Place by the Germans, in this ten-month battle alone, 250,000 soldiers died, 100,000 turn out to be missing, and 300,000 had suffered gas or other wounds.  


“On March 5, 1916, Bullard received the Croix de Guerre and Medaile Militaire,” Chivalette said.   


While recovering from his wounds in Lyons, France’s third largest city, Bullard was interviewed by Will Irwin of the Saturday Evening Post.  Because Eugene realized he could no longer serve on the infantry, the young soldier was given the opportunity to join the French Flying Corps.  One of Bullard’s friends bet him two thousand dollars he could not get into aviation school and become a pilot.


“Eugene, perhaps bolstered by the challenge, soon earned his wings from the aviation school in the city of Tours on March 5, 1917, and just as promptly collected his two thousand dollars.  This made Bullard the very first black fighter pilot in history,” Chivalette wrote.


Junne, however, revealed that other black pilots, such as Marcel Page from Russia, preceded Eugene.  It should be noted that Bullard was only the first African-American, not black, fighter pilot in history.


After attending several more flying schools, Bullard eventually became assigned to the famous Lafayette Escadrille.  “I was treated with respect and friendship even by those from America.  Then I knew at least that there are good and bad white men just as there are good and bad black men,” Bullard said.


His first mission came on September 8, 1917, a reconnaissance flight over the city of Mete.  Flying a Nieuport, which he referred to as a “real sweetheart,” Bullard would receive one confirmed kill, and another plausible, in this battle.  Eugene’s second kills was in November of 1917.  When the U.S. finally entered the war of that year, Bullard desired to transfer ot the country’s air force.  


“By that time, he had fought for over three years in the war and had been wounded four times, twice in the battle of Verdun.  He had spent eight months in hospitals recovering from war wounds, earned medals for valor and was now a military pilot with confirmed kills,” continued Chivalette.  


His application, nevertheless, would be ignored by the U.S.


Once discharged from France’s armed forces, Bullard decided to remain in Paris, soon marrying a French Countess and raised three children, but his only son died soon after birth due to double pneumonia and his marriage failed soon after.


“He opened his own nightclub soon after his marriage which soon became one of Paris’s most famous entertainment sports for singers and musicians of the time,” Chivalette said.


So much more can be mentioned about this man’s life, such as when he spied for the French during World War II years later.  Esch presented all of these facets, details, and information regarding Bullard mentioned last Wednesday.


Jay Trask, head of UNC’S Michener Library’s Archives and special collections, also shared much insight into this global war.  Trask revealed just how much UNC was involved with WWI and all the documents, books, and other items UNC has in its archives relating to it.   


“We gather almost everything you can think of in our UNC digital archives relating to the First World War,” Trask said.


“Since this war is also not as well-known as the second, we are interested in spreading as much information and knowledge about this war as possible, while disclosing all the documents, photographs, and other varieties we have in our collections,”  Trask said.    


In their archives library, for example, UNC holds numerous student newspapers, catalogs, and yearbooks, representing and detailing what students were doing in terms of the war effort during this time.  Images exist, for example, of students being trained for clerks and overseas positions, newspapers, with letters sent to soldiers from Greeley, and images, photographs, and other government documents associated with this war.  There is even WWI propaganda posters and advertising held in possession by UNC archives.   


“So many problems today, in the modern world can be traced back to the First World War.  The war essentially led to many unresolved issues still felt today,” Trask said.


From aspects such as UNC’s history and the events surrounding Europe, such as the Christmas Truce, to the legacy of WWI, Trask had many interesting points to make about this war.  Like Junne, Trask mentioned how returning African-Americans, in turn, set the stage for the future Civil Rights Movement.


“These 1,400 newly commissioned African-American soldiers would return, despite having fought, bled, and suffered for the cause of America’s ideals , to a country that spat in their face and told them to go back South and pick cotton.  This is where the seeds of Civil Rights were planted, slowly giving rise years later to racial equality,” Trask said.


The African-American experience during WWI exposed individuals everywhere to a much wider and broader world than before.  WWI led to many changes: a re-structuring of European nations an end to the rise of nationalism, a foundation for WWII, but perhaps most importantly, the U.S. would emerge a definite, unquestioned superpower, transitioning from a debtor to a creditor nation.  With WWI, often left out are the stories and experiences of African-Americans.  Junne, Esch and Trask made this period come and alive and together, helped to give recognition and respect deserved by these African and African-American soldiers.   


“Tonight’s program will hopefully inspire to drive individuals to start thinking about commemorating WWI, U.S. involvement, and the return of American soldiers, including the impact and experience of African-Americans, hopefully also reminding society of the relevance, meaning, and significance of this war also.  This was the first step in doing that,” concluded Junne.


If anyone has any questions, concerns, or comments concerning this event, please feel free to contact Dr. George Junne (, Jay Trask (, or Bill Esch (  


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