Short review: An account of how African Americans answered their country's call in World War I hoping their dedication and service would pave the way for equality and justice for their community. Instead, they faced racism and hostility, but emerged from the war as leaders dedicated to changing the world they lived in.
During World War I
A community rallied
To confirm their worth
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Full review: U.S. history can be thought of in two very different ways. On the one hand, there is the version of history that most school children are taught that seems to have inspired such properties as the History Rock portions of Schoolhouse Rock and which dominates the nostalgia-filled speeches of politicians. In this version of history, the U.S. is a shining city on a hill, built by idealists upon the principles of liberty and freedom after throwing off the yoke of British tyranny. In this version, the U.S. became a champion of progress and democracy, a nation filled with exceptional people that had an exceptional role in the world. On the other, there is reality, which is a version of history that is far less inspiring, but also far more interesting. African American Army Officers of World War I is about the second, very real version of U.S. history, and is an unflinching examination of some of the the best and worst aspects of U.S. history.
In 1915 and 1916, with the prospect of entering the raging war in Europe dominating many minds in the United States, prominent members of the African-American community began pushing for black candidates be trained as officers in the American army. As early as July 1916, calls were made for a training camp to be established for African-American men to receive training that would prepare them to be officer candidates in the event of American entry into the war. Given the title of this book, it should come as no surprise that after much political maneuvering and effort, the Fort Des Moines Training Camp for Colored Officers was established in 1917 with an initial class of 1,250 candidates drawn from the black community - 250 to come from the ranks of non commissioned officers already serving in the U.S. Army, and the rest to be drawn from the civilian population. This book is the account of the push for the creation of this camp, the controversies that surrounding its formation and operation, and the men who served first in its program and then as officers in the U.S. Army during World War I, and the profound ways in which these men shaped the United States following the war.
African-American soldiers have served in all of the was waged by the United States. The black regiments raised by the Union during the U.S. Civil War, such as the 54th Massachusetts, are well known, as are the unites of black "Buffalo Soldiers" who served on the frontier, but black soldiers also fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (although not all served on the side of the U.S.). Wilson documents this history of black service in the first chapter of African American Army Officers of World War I to give the context in which the debate over creating a segregated camp to train African-American officers for services in the army took place.
The most critical observation of the period between the U.S. Civil War and the establishment of the training camp at Fort Des Moines is the dichotomy between the aspirational language used in the laws concerning black service in the U.S. armed forces, and the actually under which they were implemented. Formally there was no legal impediment to black candidates entering the service academies at Annapolis and West Point, but in practice the deficiencies in the education afforded to most black citizens and the reluctance of the legislative branch to recommend such candidates meant that very few could even gain admission. Even if a black candidate did gain admission to one of the service academies, the environment was so hostile that very few managed to graduate - between the U.S. Civil War and U.S. entry into World War I, only a handful of black soldiers managed to graduate and secure positions as officers, the most successful of which was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Young whose career seems to have been hampered by the Army's efforts to ensure that he was never placed in a position where he would command white troops, going to far as to have him forced into retirement for medical reasons rather than promote the officer to Brigadier rank.
This official equality and practical discrimination was replicated in the enlisted ranks, most notably in an instance in Brownsville, Texas in which a company of black soldiers assigned to the army installation there aroused such hatred from the local populace that the locals threatened to meet the incoming soldiers with a posse to drive them out. After the soldiers had been stationed there, an incident in which the soldiers were almost certainly merely defending themselves resulted in an inquest after which President Theodore Roosevelt sided with the locals and had all of the black soldiers present dishonorably discharged. This should come as little surprise considering Roosevelt's disparaging remarks concerning the black soldiers who served with him in the Spanish-American War. Time and again, official equality for blacks in the armed services was undermined by a practical application of the rules that was anything but even-handed. Behind even this official facade of equality lurked naked racism: After the Brownsville incident, many in Congress urged that blacks be formally barred from entering the service academies, and that all black non-commissioned officers in the armed forces be stripped of their rank.
It is against this historical backdrop that the call for the creation of a training camp for black officers was made. Many leaders in the black community foresaw American involvement in the conflict in Europe, and argued that blacks should serves, and that the Army should give black citizens the opportunity to train as officers. Prominent voices in the black community such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Kelly Miller, Fred R. Moore, and others called upon young African-American men to step up to volunteer for duty and become both an example of the loyalty and bravery of the African-American citizen, and a new generation of leaders for their community. As Wilson details, this call was not without controversy, both within and without the black community. Many white Americans opposed the idea of training black men as officers, mostly for predictably racist reasons: Black men were said to be fundamentally unfit for leadership, black men were inherently unreliable, black men were not intelligent enough to serve as officers, and so on. Many within the black community opposed such a training camp on far sounder grounds - the first reviving arguments made during the Spanish-American War which asked why black men should be asked to volunteer to defend liberty and democracy abroad when the society they lived in denied them the same at home. This is a quite reasonable question, and when one reads and outline of how African-American soldiers had been treated to that point, the question that comes to mind is not "why should blacks serve", but rather "why have blacks not deserted the nation in droves".
The second objection to the proposed camp from the black community was something of an extension of the first: The proposed camp was to be segregated. Black officer candidates were to train separately from white officer candidates, and given the Army's track record when it came to actually implementing equal treatment for black and white soldiers, having concerns in this area was entirely justified. Further, having a separate segregated training camp was also seen as an ideological affront, a statement from the government that black America was different from white America. While many modern day Americans are familiar with the Jim Crow laws segregating blacks from whites, many also have the somewhat blinkered view that such laws were the exclusive province of Southern states. The story of the creation of, and controversy surrounding, the training camp at Fort Des Moines should put these notions to rest: In the early part of the 20th century, the United States as a whole was remained an almost unapologetically racist society.
Despite these objections, the segregated Seventeenth Provisional Training Regiment was created - those who supported it reasoning that even though a segregated training camp was not an ideal solution, half of something was better than all of nothing. A call went out for volunteers, and around 1,250 men responded, drawn from among the best and brightest that the African-American community of that era had to offer as pleas went out for "doctors, lawyers, teachers, business men, and all those who graduated from high school" to enlist. Roughly a quarter of the men who responded had been educated at Howard University, the remainder from dozens of other institutions of higher learning. As Wilson details, the recruitment of this collection of volunteers was not without hiccups, but in retrospect it seems almost remarkable that so many men would choose to give of themselves to an institution that had proved so hostile to them for so long.
Although many prominent black leaders had hoped that Colonel Young would command the training regiment, but his forced retirement prevented that from happening. Instead, Colonel Charles C. Ballou was given the position, and as Wilson lays out, the work of transforming the volunteers into officers began. Much of the history of this process seems fairly unremarkable, although Wilson does highlight both the triumphs of the cadets, and the to be expected indignities heaped upon them. Des Moines was chosen because, as a northern city, it was believed that it would be more welcoming to the training regiment than a southern locale would be, and to a certain extent this was true. On the other hand, racism ran deep in American society, and there were some incidents that are documented as part of Wilson's narrative. More troubling were the obstacles the U.S. Army put in the way of the cadet's success. For his part, Ballou seems to have done his best to prepare the soldiers under his command for their role as officers, but the U.S. Army seems to have been determined to undermine them in sneaky ways. The officers trained at Fort Des Moines were only given infantry training, and were not to be allowed to enter active duty as artillery or communications officers. Later, when some officers were allowed to try their hand at artillery work, they were given little or no training in the use of the equipment, and then their predictably poor test scores were used as evidence that black officers were unsuited to that branch of the service. When all-black battalions were formed, they were divided and scattered across bases throughout the country so as to assuage fears that too many armed black men in one space would foment rebellion.
Time after time, through both official and unofficial means, overt and covert, the men of the Seventeenth Provisional Training Regiment found obstacles placed in their path due to their race. Even so, the bulk of the cadets completed their training and received commissions as officers. If one were to think that their path from there would be smooth, one would be mistaken. Not content with undermining their efforts during training, the U.S. Army continued to do so after the officers and their men were shipped off to France - turning a blind eye to insubordination by white soldiers, issuing orders limiting the freedom of black soldiers while on leave, making efforts to keep black soldiers out of combat lest they demonstrate that they were actually effective at the job, and even going so far as to try to tell the French army not to be too nice to the black soldiers when they were put under French command. Despite France's own less than sterling record in dealing with black troops recruited from their colonial holdings, the French were far more welcoming to the black American troops than their own white American countrymen had been. Ballou, now the commander of the all-black 92
As Wilson's account demonstrates, the optimism and hope that fueled the push to create the training camp at Fort Des Moines and establish a corps of black officers within the U.S. Army proved to be misguided. Despite overcoming the obstacles placed in their way, the service and loyalty provided by black soldiers in World War I did little to change the attitudes of the society they lived in. On the other hand, what Wilson's account does show is that many of the men of the Seventeenth Provisional Training Regiment went on to become prominent voices in the black community resulting in an array of political leaders, legal scholars, academics, authors, and artists who shaped the course of the push for equality and justice over the decades following the war. Wilson leans perhaps a bit too heavily on the notion that their shared wartime experience was a prime factor in this development - after all the men who joined the the Seventeenth Provisional Training Regiment were already civic-minded enough to volunteer for service in answer to a call that asked them to give of themselves for a greater cause. There is something of a chicken and egg question here: Did the men whose stories are told in this book become leaders of their community because of their service as officers in the U.S. Army, or did they choose service as officers because they were already on their way to becoming leaders. Either way, their contributions cannot be overstated, and their sacrifices should not be forgotten.
Wilson is exceptionally thorough in his reporting, at times perhaps too thorough, as there are a few places where the book gets a bit repetitive. Even so, African American Army Officers of World War I recounts an important chapter in U.S. history - a chapter of the kind that is far too often overlooked, and which should not be. Wilson's account tells the story of men who not only stood up to be counted in their nation's time of need, their actions forced their nation to begin to live up to its ideals. This is the history of the worst aspects of the United States, but at the same time an account of the nobility that has made the country better than it was before. For anyone who has an interest in the full account of the history of the United States, this book is likely to be a fascinating read.
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