They called it the “Great War.” With over nine million soldiers killed, World War I was the bloodiest fight to ever take place in recorded history until that point. America had its own local traumas in a time of total war. It occurred during one of the worst periods of oppression of Black people in the United States since the end of slavery. Jim Crow policies institutionalized segregation and sanctioned racism.
This was not the only racial tension present in the war era. With the sinking of the Lusitania,the discovery of the Zimmerman Telegram, and the entering of the United States into the war on the Allied side, there was a new wave of anti-German sentiment across the country. German soldiers and even German Americans were despised and described as “Huns.” In propaganda posters, they were depicted as barbaric beasts. German immigrants faced new discrimination and abuse from their fellow citizens.
African-American participation in the Great War occasioned a crossing of these racial conflicts. Newspapers from the time represent this well. They show a fascination with African-American soldiers fighting Germans, and many articles with anti-German language are quick to comment on the role of Black fighters in defeating the Germans.
While there is a celebration of African-American soldiers in the news record, this served to deride the German soldiers and ultimately maintain the racial hierarchy of the “progressive” era.