Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 January 2021
For African Americans, World War I continued a long, vexed history of broken promises to those who gave their service:a history critical for understanding Black responses to the Great War. As they had done in previous wars, the majority of Black people stood by their country, including activist and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, and novelist Charles Chesnutt. But a tense debate also ensued in African American communities around the efficacy of Black participation given that wartime experience did not match the democratic rhetoric of the mobilization. Military and political leaders ensured that Jim Crow accompanied the troops to Europe, and although Black units became the most decorated in the US army (albeit by the French), the military pressed a disproportionate majority of Black soldiers into service as stevedores and other non-combat positions. Domestically, racist violence flared with new intensity, and writers like Mary Burrill and Claude McKay directly addressed the lynchings of servicemen and the “red summer” race riots of 1919. This essay nuances the ideas and realities of patriotism, freedom, and citizenship through African American lenses and Black military participation.