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A section of the print 'Our Colored Heroes,' showing Sargeant Henry Johnson fighting German soldiers.

Our Colored Heroes: Black Patriots in an Age of Intolerance

May-June 2014

At the moment President Wilson was urging Americans to enter a war to defend democracy, Black Americans were suffering the terrors of racism in their own country.  As Wilson and his administration sought to institutionalize segregation in government departments, Black Americans doubted and debated whether a war in Europe was "their war."  Ultimately, however, Black Americans saw the World War as an opportunity and, although reluctantly, the War Department drafted Blacks with the specific intent of using them as laborers to advance the war effort, not to put guns in their hand as part of the fighting forces.

Some books and resources on exhibit include:


Left display case

Jim Crow Joins Up, by Ruth Danenhower Wilson.  Danenhower Wilson was a popular socialite and a recognized Social Worker.  Just after the war she debunked many of the stereotypes commonly held about Black soldier.  Those stereotypes greatly influenced decisions regarding Blacks as part of the military fighting force at the beginning of the war.

American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm, by Gail Lumet Buckley.  Lumet Buckley chronicles Black American's patriotism and participation in the history of American wars both on and off the battlefield.


Colonel Charles Young

Picture of Colonel Charles Young. In 1917, Colonel Young, a West Point graduate, was the highest ranking Black officer in the Regular Army.  In the States, Young served in the west with command over all Black troops.  In a foreign deployed military force, there was an increased possibility white troops would be required to salute a Black officer. Young was discharged from the military for reasons of bad health.  In an unsuccessful effort to prove his discharge unwarranted, Young rode a horse from Wilberforce, Ohio to the nation's Capital to prove his fitness. Young was reinstated near the end of the war, but too late to command a unit in Europe.

The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I, by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri.  An investigation into the debasing and inhumane treatment of Black troops by white soldiers, officers and the War Department.


Cover of 'Blacks in the United States Army: Portraits through History,' one of the books on display in the current exhibit.

Blacks in the United States Army: Portraits through History, edited by Martha S. Putney.

Cover: A Study of a Negro Soldier, Sergeant W.H. Cox, Reg't 369th Inf. N.Y.N.G., Champagne, France, 1918. By Raymond Desvarreau.

The Brownville Raid, by John D. Weaver.  In 1906, citizens of the town of Brownsville Texas accused Black soldiers, billeted just outside of their town, of the murder of a white bartender.  The soldiers were court martialed and dishonorably discharged.  The fact of the incident was often cited as rational for disparate treatment of Black soldiers.

In 1970, John Weaver published the results of his investigation into the facts behind the court martial and determined the evidence was manufactured.  Based on Weaver's investigation, President Nixon re-instated and honorably discharged the dishonored Black soldiers.

Race, War and Surveillance: African Americans and the United States Government during World War I, by Mark Ellis.  Pre-war race relation in the US were terrible; lynching Black people was a common form of race terrorism. The German government, aware of the tense relationship between the races, flooded Black communities with propaganda discouraging Black participation in the coming war. The United States government doubted the loyalty of Black Americans and launched a clandestine campaign of surveillance on Black leaders and communities.

center exhibit case

Soldiers of Freedom: an Illustrated History of African Americans in the Armed Forces, by Kai Wright.  The German propaganda machine, well aware of racial strife in American, mounted a campaign to discourage Black participation in the war.

Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion, World War II, by Anthony Richard Ewart Rhodes.  Black Americans were the subject of German hate by WWII.  Germans gave up their propaganda efforts toward Black Americans by the start of WWII.

Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military, by Bernard C. Nalty.  The title was taken a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Warrior's Prayer.  Both the book and the poem describe the dual battle faced by Black Americans, the fight against America's foe and the fight against racism.

Black Soldiers of New York State: A Proud Legacy, by Anthony F. Gero.  The book is an investigation to discern why Black Americans choose to defend a country that denied them the rights of full citizenship.

Scott's Official History of the American Negro in The World War, by Emmett J. Scott, Special Assistant to the Secretary of War for Negro Relations.

"In response to the natural desire and nation-wide demand for an authentic and reliable record of Negro military achievements and other of their patriotic contributions, this volume has been prepared as a lasting tribute to the American Negro's participation in the greatest war in human history." Emmett Scott

right exhibit case

From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York's Colored Volunteers, by Arthur West Little.

Our Colored Heroes – 1918

Print: Image is of WWI hero Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson and Pvt. Robert Needham.  Johnson and Needham were awarded the Croix de Guerre by France for bravery in battle. Print was on loan from the New York State Museum.

Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars, by Robert B. Edgerton.

Image: Proud father displays Blue Stars representing his eleven sons serving in the war.

The History of Alpha Phi Alpha: A Development in Negro College Life, by Charles Harris Wesley.

Image: Vertner Tandy, first commissioned First Lieutenant in the 15th New York National Guard; First Black American registered architect in New York State.

Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919
Image: James Reese Europe, with his military band, is credited with introducing jazz to France. Unlike other songwriters of the period who wrote songs about WWI, Europe actually served in combat as a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard.

Cover of sheet music 'Goodbye Alexander, Goodbye Honey Boy.'

Goodbye Alexander, Goodbye Honey Boy
Composer: Turner Layton
Lyricist:  Henry Creamer
Sheet Music
The lyrics refer to the colored soldiers. [Note: This historic text may contain offensive or inappropriate language.]

Women of Courage and Distinction

The U.S. government was concerned that young American men serving in Europe would be exposed to unhealthy temptations.  Relief agencies such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the YMCA were engaged to care for and provide entertainment for the armed forces.

The YMCA, unlike the other relief agencies, provided wholesome entertainment for Black troops.  Three women from New York, Addie Hunton, Kathryn Johnson and Helen Curtis provided canteen services for approximately 200,000 Black troops in France from 1917 through 1918.

Hunton, Johnson and Curtis braved the obvious dangers to organize tours, teach some soldiers to read, write letters and provided other canteen services for Black soldiers.

American Women in World War I: They Also Served, by Lettie Gavin.

Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women's Activism from World War I to the New Deal, by Nikki Brown.

Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces, by Addie D. Hunton and Kathryn Johnson.

Exhibit curated by Pat Jordan

Last Updated: November 2, 2021