When war erupted in Europe in 1914, the United States was a nation steeped in racial divides. Discrimination was evident everywhere in the country and, in the south, ‘Jim Crow’ laws forced people of color to use separate and usually inferior facilities, denied them equal protection under the law, and condoned vigilante mob violence. Starting in 1915, a devastating boll weevil infestation ravaged the south, destroying cotton crops and putting thousands of African Americans out of work. It was during this time that African Americans began to flee from the south in search of safety, social equality and economic opportunity. Known as the Great Migration, close to 500,000 African Americans moved to northern cities in the largest relocation event America had ever seen.
While many historical accounts cite economic opportunity as the driving force behind the Great Migration, first hand accounts reveal that African Americans relocated primarily in an effort to escape increased oppression from black codes, including ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the southern states. In addition, the industrial economy was growing in the north and a freeze on European immigration made an abundance of low wage jobs available. Despite increased opportunities, racial unrest prevailed during the Great Migration and many African Americans experienced resistance and violence from white citizens as they settled in northern states. One notably violent event occurred in East St. Louis, Missouri on July 2, 1917, when a four day riot between white and black workers left 125 black residents dead.
Violence also erupted at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas when black soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry grew tired of racial discrimination by white citizens and police personnel. The soldiers marched to assert their rights and a riot ensued. 4 soldiers and 16 civilians and law enforcement personnel were killed in the conflict. The army court-martialed 110 soldiers. 63 were given life sentences and 13 were hung without due process.
Despite the violence, black press and civil organizations insisted that African Americans be given the opportunity to serve their country in the army. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress and stated “the world must be made safe for democracy.” These words resonated deeply in the African American community as they had yet to experience true democracy here in America. How could Wilson’s words be sincere if America set out to fight for democracy in Europe while people of color were treated like second class citizens at home? Viewing the conflict as an opportunity to prove their equality as citizens, African Americans were eager to join the fight overseas.
African American draftees were assigned to the 92nd & 93rd Combat Divisions. The army assigned most African American soldiers to service units since many army officials believed that black soldiers were more suited to manual labor than combat duty. However, there were instances where African American soldiers did see combat; most notable was the 93rd Division 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters served in combat on the frontline for 191 days, ceded no ground to the Germans, and were the first regiment to reach the Rhine River after the Armistice. With the longest consecutive duration of service in combat in WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters received a regimental Croix-De-Guerre, one of France’s highest honors. They returned to the United States national heroes.
Unlike the 93rd Division, the 92nd Division did not enjoy the same recognition for their accomplishments and were treated inhumanely even as they served their country. Depite being segregated during their training in the U.S., which impeded the unit’s cohesion and pride, the 92nd Division served on the front lines with valor. However, the division faced significant challenges due to racist attitudes, particularly from commanding officers Lieutenant Brigadier General Bullard, and Col. Allen J. Greer. White army officials spread rumors about the black troops to French civilians, calling them rapists. Furthermore, the 92nd Division encountered their most challenging incident during the Allied Meuse-Argonne offensive in September 1918. During the offensive, the 368th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division failed to complete an assignment on the front lines. Ignoring the lack of training, equipment, and communicaiton provided to the men, army officials touted the incident as evidence that African American officers and soldiers were failures to the war effort. African American soldiers contested the slanderous assertions of the Army well into the post war period.
The first African American draftees to leave the City of Reading departed on October 27th 1917. A total of 8 men assembled in front of the Courthouse at 8 AM to begin their departure. The 8 draftees were seated in automobiles draped in American flags. A parade was led by the Cadet Band with the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in the World (I.B.P.O.E.W.) marching in front. The parade started at the Courthouse, made its way to 6th and Penn, marched down to 4th Street, counter marched to 6th Street, and then headed north on 6th Street to the Outer Station. According to the Reading Eagle’s account of the day “no lot of selected men received a finer farewell”. All lodge members carried American flags as the automobiles slowly moved out 6th Street. The Reading Eagle also noted that the men carried cards bearing the words: “Forward; to preserve for all mankind the freedom that the government of the United States has preserved for us; Reading Pa.” As the draftees and their families made for the Outer Station, the band assembled on the platform and all hats were removed for “The Star Spangled Banner.” The draftees were headed for Camp Meade, Virginia.
It wasn’t until August 5, 1918 when the second group of African American draftees departed from Reading for their service. 31 men gathered at the Baer Building at Court & Church Streets to embark on their journey to Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. At 7AM, a parade began and was led by the Reading Patriotic Committee, The Peerless Band and 400 family and friends. Most draftees were members of the I.B.P.O.E.W., or “colored Elks.” The Reading New-Times declared “A happier crowd of selected men never left the Outer Station” as the “good natured draftees” paraded toward the train depot singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Dixie.”
William C. Gilyard was one of approximately 350,000 African American soldiers who served during World War I. After the war he moved to Reading, PA, seeking employment opportunities. As a trained blacksmith, one of Gilyard’s first jobs in Reading was with the American Chain and Cable Company, which later became Carpenter Technology. Van Gilyard, William’s grandson and the Vice President of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, says that even as servicemen in WWI, his grandfather and other African American soldiers were subjected to racism and unequal treatment.
“The majority of government officials believed that blacks should not be armed, or that they would turn and flee in the face of battle. That belief contradicts history because blacks served prominently in each war starting from skirmishes, fighting alongside first settlers, colonists, and during the Civil and Spanish-American wars, just to name a few. My grandfather served (in WWI) and he expected to have some equality when he returned home. But of course, when an African American (soldier) returned home and was walking the streets in uniform, it was frowned upon. They were sometimes jumped and their uniforms were torn off of them.”
Even in the face of discrimination and unequal treatment, African Americans fought for freedom, both at home and abroad. Their legacy of service and accomplishment lives on today thanks to those who work to preserve African American history. In Berks County, the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum is a premier resource for local African American history.
Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.
The Berks History Center thanks Van Gilyard, Vice President of the Central PA African American Museum, for providing research, resources and his personal contributions to this article.