When President Woodrow Wilson — not known for his racial tolerance — declared that the U.S. would join the Allies in fighting the Central Powers, black Americans were divided on where they might fit into the war effort.
“Will someone tell us just how long Mr. Wilson has been a convert to TRUE DEMOCRACY?” one African-American paper wrote of the hypocrisy in Wilson fighting for democratic rights overseas.
Others saw an opportunity for unity.
“Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy,” W.E.B. Du Bois urged in what became a controversial piece.
All in all, 2.3 million black men registered for the draft. The Marines turned them down, the Navy took a few, and the army accepted the most — resulting in the enlistment of 380,000 African-Americans.
About 200,000 of those soldiers would be shipped overseas, where they remained segregated into their own units — most of which were relegated to difficult manual labor in noncombat military camps.
Only 11 percent of black soldiers actually saw action. The Harlem Hellfighters were among them.