The Story of a Black Infantry Unit Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

African American men joined the army or were drafted in much greater numbers proportionally than their white counterparts when the United States went to war in 1917. The US Army was still segregated, however, and most black units were relegated to low-status labor in support of combat troops. The prestige and honor associated with frontline service was considered by many in the African American community as key to greater equality both in the army and at home. In response to this demand, the War Department created two black combat units, the Ninety-second and Ninety-third Divisions, in 1917. Emmett J. Scott, a prominent African American leader, and advisor to the secretary of war, wrote a glowing review of the 367th Infantry Regiment, part of the Ninety-second Division and active in the some of the most grueling battles of the war. Though African American soldiers fought with distinction throughout the war, it would be another quarter century before the army would be integrated.

Summary Overview

African American men joined the army or were drafted in much greater numbers proportionally than their white counterparts when the United States went to war in 1917. The US Army was still segregated, however, and most black units were relegated to low-status labor in support of combat troops. The prestige and honor associated with frontline service was considered by many in the African American community as key to greater equality both in the army and at home. In response to this demand, the War Department created two black combat units, the Ninety-second and Ninety-third Divisions, in 1917. Emmett J. Scott, a prominent African American leader, and advisor to the secretary of war, wrote a glowing review of the 367th Infantry Regiment, part of the Ninety-second Division and active in the some of the most grueling battles of the war. Though African American soldiers fought with distinction throughout the war, it would be another quarter century before the army would be integrated.

Defining Moment

On April 6, 1917, both houses of Congress approved President Woodrow Wilson’s request that war be declared against Germany. Immediately upon the declaration of war, the US government began a large-scale mobilization of troops, industry, and agriculture. On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed, which required all men from twenty-one to thirty years of age (later expanded to eighteen to forty-five) to register for military service. African Americans were drafted on the same terms as their white counterparts, but they served in segregated units. By the end of the war, 367,710 black Americans had been drafted, comprising thirteen percent of the total draft, though they comprised only ten percent of the total population. In addition to regular army troops and volunteers, more than 400,000 black men served in the war from 1917–19. Local boards determined who would be drafted, exempting those who were considered unfit or vital to the home front. African Americans were disproportionately represented in the draft, and were not often granted exemptions for their family status or physical fitness. In one instance, a board in Georgia released forty-four percent of white registrants on physical grounds and exempted only three percent of black registrants using the same standard. Most black soldiers served in labor units, building roads, unloading supplies, and digging trenches.

Though relegated to labor units, African Americans had a long tradition of combat service on the eve of World War I. After the “colored” units were disbanded at the end of the Civil War, laws were passed in 1866 and 1869 that established six and then four army regiments comprised of black soldiers with white commanders. Ironically, this also formalized military segregation, granting federal recognition to a structure based on racial division and enforced the belief that African American soldiers would only perform well if led by white commanders. These troops, nicknamed “buffalo soldiers” or “buffalos” by the Native Americans they encountered while serving in the West, served in combat positions in frontier conflicts and in the Spanish-American War. Regular army units were dispersed throughout the country during World War I, with some troops assigned to foreign service in segregated units made up primarily of draftees, but most remaining in the country.

The sheer number of African American troops led to an adjustment in leadership theory. Though regimental commanders and field officers were white, it was thought that as many company officers as possible should be black, as there would be less likelihood of resistance or desertion. To this end, Fort Des Moines opened as an African American officer training camp in 1917. More than twelve hundred men attended this camp, including many of the officers of the 367th Infantry Regiment.

Though the Ninety-second and Ninety-third Divisions saw significant casualties, they returned to a nation still strongly opposed to racial equality and worried that African American soldiers would use their military skill and training against whites. Violence against African Americans actually increased after the war, with anti-black riots in cities across the country and lynching on the rise in the American South.

Author Biography

Emmett Jay Scott was born in Houston, Texas, in 1873. He attended Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, but did not graduate. Scott worked for the Houston Post newspaper until 1894, first in menial jobs and later as a journalist. He left to found the Texas Freeman, the first African American newspaper in Houston. Scott also worked with influential Republican leader Norris W. Cuney and was hired by Booker T. Washington in 1897. He was a writer and personal secretary for Washington for the next eighteen years. Scott was also influential in forming the National Negro Business League, serving as its secretary from 1902 until 1922. He was also secretary of the Tuskegee Institute from 1912 to 1919.

Scott became special advisor to Secretary of War Newton Baker in 1917. Scott was considered the expert on African American affairs, and so was responsible for advising the War Department on policies regarding black troops. Scott produced reports on the conditions and performance of African American soldiers during the war and published The American Negro in the World War in 1919 and Negro Migration during the First World War in 1920. Scott was an administrator at Howard University after the war until his retirement from the college in 1938, and he helped to organize African American shipyard labor during World War II. Scott died in Washington, DC, in 1957.

Document Analysis

In this chapter from The American Negro in the World War, published in 1919, Scott gives a complete accounting of the actions of the 367th Infantry Regiment. The 367th was a unit of the Ninety-second Division, one of two African American combat divisions. Though all the men of the Ninety-second Division had reason to be proud of the “achievements of Negro troops upon battlefields overseas,” the 367th was, in Scott’s opinion, “the most notable unit.”

Scott goes on to give a complete account of the structure of the unit, highlighting the many parts of the country that contributed soldiers to the regiment. Soldiers came from states as varied as Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, and Michigan, and gathered in New York. Highlighting this regional diversity served Scott’s goal of proving that all black soldiers, not only certain populations, had the characteristics of bravery and loyalty that made them excellent combat soldiers. Scott notes that six men were brought in from the regular army to join the draftees. Though the regiment was composed of African American soldiers, the “field” officers, those with the rank of major and above, were white. Officers below this level, with the rank of captain and below, were African American, with some exceptions. Scott notes that the officers were trained at Fort Des Moines Officer Training Camp, the segregated camp set up earlier that year.

Emmett makes particular reference to the Southern roots of the commander of the unit, Colonel James A. Moss, who not only ably led the unit but also set up a support organization, the 367th Infantry Welfare League, whose board included former president Theodore Roosevelt and other dignitaries. Racial tensions in the South were particularly high, and prejudice against African Americans was strong and widespread there. African Americans from the South were more likely to live in poverty and have little or no education than their counterparts in the North, and so, they were perceived as slovenly. However, Scott makes the point that the unit presented a fine appearance on parade, even though “one-half of the men had been drafted from the far South and had come up from cotton plantations and fields without previous military experience.” The men were presented with regimental colors from the Union League Club, an organization that had outfitted one of the first units of African American troops during the Civil War, in the face of significant opposition. By describing the Union League Club in detail, Scott ties the 367th firmly to a tradition of service rendered to the nation that stretched back fifty years.

Scott went on to describe the involvement of the 367th in a particularly bloody encounter at Metz, for which the entire first battalion was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the French award for exceptional military service. The record of the actual battles that the 367th was engaged in is surprisingly short, although reference is made to “its splendid record at home and achievements overseas.” The most attention in this piece is given to the writings of Colonel Moss on the fitness of African American men for military duty. Though Moss accepts and promotes widely held stereotypes (African Americans are “tractable” and “of a happy disposition”), Moss argues that these qualities and others, such as physical courage and faith in leadership, make African Americans excellent soldiers. In a rare egalitarian moment, Moss advises that officers should “treat and handle the colored man as you would any other human being out of whom you would make a good soldier.” Scott also speculated that when white officers were exposed in battlefield situations to the “better class” of African Americans, such as those who were made officers, “the difficulties connected with the so-called Race Problem are simplified and reduced to the minimum.” Moss lived with the prejudice of his day, however, once telling his African American officers that they should not expect salutes from white soldiers.

Scott concluded that the history of the 367th Regiment is proof that if African American soldiers were led by white men of “high intellectual and moral caliber,” they were able to develop into excellent soldiers, Scott also pointed out, however, that African American officers were proving themselves able to lead “men of their own race.”

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this piece is the fitness of African Americans for frontline military service and not only as enlisted men, but as officers. Scott praises the white commander and field officers of the 367th at great length, but he still concludes that African American men are able to lead each other. There is certainly no mention of integrating the army, and it was assumed that African Americans would always serve in separate units, but Scott argues that these officers and the men in their charge performed with distinction.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bryan, Jami. “Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI.” Military History Online. MilitaryHistoryOnline.com, 2003. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
  • Gero, Anthony F. Black Soldiers of New York State: A Proud Legacy. New York: SUNY P, 2012. Print.
  • US Army. “World War Regimental Histories: Pictorial History 367th Infantry, Army of the United States, 1942.” Bangor Community: Digital Commons. Bangor Public Library, n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
  • Williams, Chad. Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2012. Print.
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