The opportunity to serve and assert their abilities in the field of battle would inspire African American men to seek to claim their rights to democracy in their home county. A number of prominent white politicians recognized this and could not accept it. In fact, during the war, white Americans vehemently opposed African American participation citing that “military service would make black laborers less docile and might lead to dangerous black militancy after the war.”
Senator James Kimble Vardaman of Mississippi argued that, “Universal military service means that millions of Negroes who come under this measure will be armed. I know of no greater menace to the South than this.” Vardaman’s fear of black reprisal for past indignities was supported by other white politicians, who recalled the Brownsville (Texas) incident in 1917, whereby one hundred soldiers of the Twenty-fourth Infantry’s Third Battalion retaliated to the indignities pressed upon them by the local town’s people by meeting violence with violence.
Still, there were those African American men who served during World War I who were a part of the black middle and upper-classes. Numerous doctors, lawyers, and educators recognized that service to their country defined not only their citizenship, but could potentially influence their futures in the unfolding history of the country.
On February 17, 1919, after being denied by the United States Army to march with the allied forces on Bastille Day in Paris, France, Harlem’s own 369th marched up Manhattan’s 5th Avenue and all the way to Harlem. Remembered as the “Hellfighter’s of Harlem,” the 369th was the most decorated American fighting unit of WWI.
An epitomy of bravery: Sergeant Henry Lincoln Johnson
Part of the famed 369th Harlem Hellfighters, Sergeant Henry Lincoln Johnson epitomized the bravery that African American soldiers demonstrated during World War I. Armed with only one rifle and a bolo knife, Johnson, along with Private Needham Roberts, fought off twenty-nine German soldiers raiding their position on the front lines in the Marne sector. Johnson and Roberts would be the first Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Johnson the Purple Heart for his bravery. And in 2003, Johnson received the Army’s second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross. Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Henry Lincoln Johnson (1897-1929), from Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War (1919)