In World War I, more than a quarter of a million African-American soldiers served, mostly in support units. Many enlisted to show their loyalty and patriotism to the United States. For the first time, segregated African-American units were led by African-American officers.
African-American units that saw action acquitted themselves well, and soldiers received awards for valor. The entire 369th Infantry, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government.
The African Americans, like other soldiers, felt accomplishment for the victory celebrated at the Armistice, and expected to be treated as heroic as other soldiers when they arrived back in the United States. They were disappointed.
During World War II, more than 1 million African-American soldiers served, again in segregated units. Defeating Nazi Germany and fascism was only half their battle; the soldiers and their families were also fighting for equality in employment, housing, education, and the right to vote.
In June 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which banned discriminatory employment practices in the federal government, unions, and all companies that participated in war-related work.
Although still in segregated units, the media coverage of the Tuskegee airmen, the 92nd Infantry Division, the Red Ball Express, the 761st Tank Battalion, and the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion showed that African-Americans could fight and support the fighting as any other unit.
On July 26, 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the armed forces, a huge step toward equality.
(The Associated Negro Press interviews African-American soldiers in Europe. George C. Marshall Foundation photo)
The George C. Marshall Foundation library and archives staff organizes material by the original title, which sometimes contain pejorative terms that are no longer used. Searching the catalog using these original title terms may be the only way to locate items.
To find items that the Marshall Foundation has on African Americans in World War I and World War II, search “African American,” “African-American,” and the original title term “negro” in the library catalog: https://www.marshallfoundation.org/library/results/
Digitized items in the George C. Marshall Foundation archives on African Americans in World War I and World War II: