By Alex Jones
INCREDIBLE images from the First World War show the brave African-American men who fought for a country which actively oppressed and segregated them.
The remarkable shots, which were taken circa 1918, depict a proud father holding up eleven stars, one for each of his sons serving; jubilant soldiers returning home after valiantly fighting for their lives in France; and rapturous crowds welcoming their heroes home.
In April 1917, when the United States entered the Great War, regulations known as the ‘Jim Crow Laws’ were fiercely enforced to ensure that white and black people could not or would not mix. A hangover from United States’ slavery system, many African American men hoped that the First World War would give them a platform to fight for their country and for rights to full citizenship.
Within months of the call to arms, over 700,000 black men has enlisted in the army hoping, but not expecting, to be treated as equals.
Their fears were realised when the African American recruits were told they would not be eligible to fight and die for the Marines, the USA’s elite force. There were also very limited roles available for black men in the US Navy. The army was more accommodating but African Americans were not able to serve in the aviation units.
Regardless, African American soldiers soon rose to the ranks of officer and captains – but only after specially constructed segregated camps were established.
One of the most famous regiments. the formidable Harlem Hellfighters, consisted of African-Americans and African Puerto Ricans and became the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. They spent more time in combat than any other American unit.
In early 1918, the 369th United States Infantry, their official title, arrived to help the French Army.
Earning the reputation from the Germans as fearsome opponents, the 369th was nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters because the regiment “never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy.”
The Hellfighters fought in the trenches for 191 days and the entire regiment received the Croix de Guerre medal for their actions in France. They were not subjected to any segregation by the French Army who valued their immense service and bravery.
Despite their courage, sacrifice and dedication to their country, African-Americans returned home to face yet more racism and segregation from their fellow countrymen.
It was not until 1964 – forty years after the First World War started in Europe – that the Civil Rights Act was signed, supposedly ending decades of segregation and discrimination.
The question of racial equality in the United States remains a hotly debated topic to this day.