Congress declared war with Germany in 1917. With the United States entering the Great War, the military needed soldiers, and they were not in a place to be turning anyone away. And though President Wilson declared that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” black America couldn’t help but note the hypocrisy in that statement. After all, what kind of democracy would allow local governments to deny the voting rights of an entire race?
Nevertheless, many African Americans joined up. Some saw it as an opportunity to prove their love and loyalty to their country, others saw it as their civic duty. Perhaps, they thought, if they proved themselves as soldiers, white Americans would finally see them as deserving of their civil rights.
But for the white military, African Americans in the ranks was problematic. Segregation, especially in the South, was the custom. Allowing blacks into the military would require that they be treated not merely as equals, but with some actual modicum of respect. And a black officer? Military rules would require lower ranking white soldiers to address them as "sir." Officials puzzled over the problem of black soldiers at length. Southern legislators took their concerns directly to President Wilson. If racial balance was to be maintained, special considerations would need to be made. Segregation, they determined, would be essential. The African-American soldiers were allocated to four all-black regiments. And when they were sent overseas, despite the Army's command having refused to do so with its white soldiers, the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment was assigned to fight under French command.
Though not without the U.S. military making a few choice requests.
Along with the black soldiers, the military command sent a memo informing them of the position black people held in the United States — that they are "inferior being[s] with whom relations of business or service only are possible." The letter warned against treating black soldiers with too much familiarity or praising their accomplishments, lest they get "aspirations" that would not be possible upon their return to the U.S.
The memo, for all intents and purposes, outlined a Jim Crow policy that the U.S. military expected the French army to institute among its ranks. Blacks and whites were not to mix in any way. Shaking hands, eating meals together, and casual conversations were all off limits.
Thankfully, the U.S. military's attempt to expand Jim Crow failed. The French disregarded the memo, some officers burning it immediately. And, under French command, the members of the all-black 369th proved themselves more than worthy of respect. By the end of the war, they had not only spent more time in combat than any other unit, but they were also among the most highly decorated units in the army.