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The Labor Battalions 

By Carlos Pulido posted November 25, 2018

The African-American experience during the First World War was not all "death and glory." For every soldier who got a chance to engage the enemy in combat, there were twenty to thirty men working on routine tasks such as: loading and unloading ships, building piers, laying railroad tracks, making roads along with other duties that made it possible for the fighting men to obtain the food, ammunition, and other supplies they so desperately needed. Black stevedore regiments, labor battalions, development battalions, or pioneer infantry were some of the names given to these service units; they were the day laborers of the army. Stevedore regiments had the same regulations, equipment, military rank and uniform that the infantry had. Although their occupation focused on industrial assignments, all the life, workings and details of procedure were carried out according to military law and order.

The first group of Stevedores in France was composed mostly of men who went over in June, 1917, with a civilian contract company. They served for one year and returned to America once their contract was finished. As more companies of volunteer men began to arrive in France during the early days of July, 1917, the Stevedore Camps at base ports in France grew until they numbered about fifty thousand men. The vast majority of black soldiers in the American Army fulfilled a large majority of the work of this "Service of Supply," or as it was known in army slang, the "S.O.S," and their work won the highest praise from all who had the opportunity to judge the efficiency of their performance. The men who served their country in any of these organizations were fighting to save their country as though they had carried a rifle in the trenches.

Despite claims by Secretary Baker that the War Department did not tolerate racial discrimination, the reality of the situation could not be farther from the truth. Although it was not true that only black men were assigned to labor units, the objective with white draftees was to make as many of them into fighting men as possible, while with black draftees, as few as possible. Stevedores experienced discrimination, and an incident involving Quartermaster General Henry G. Sharpe demonstrates how the army took direct discriminatory action against these men. In September, 1917, Sharpe recommended to form a special regiment of black stevedores in case civilian longshoremen went on strike, because black stevedores would not have the union connections to go on strike. All white draftees, regardless of eventual assignment, received basic training; which required about forty hours of training a week, including physical and infantry drills, along with marching, and work with rifles. On the other hand, black units received very limited or nonexistent training, as the army believed that almost all black draftees would be used as laborers. Only the small number of African-American soldiers assigned to combat units received any significant amount of military instruction.

The Armistice of November 11, 1918, ended the fighting and most "colored" combat units were disbanded and sent back to the U.S. by February, 1919. However, the men of the S.O.S. did not have an easy time as the combat soldiers did after the Armistice. There was a massive amount of work to be done and all of the debris of war had to be cleaned up in time in order for French farmers to plant their fields again in the spring of 1919. Over six thousand black soldiers were sent to Romagne and were detailed to graves registration. One of the worst jobs of all S.O.S. assignments: it consisted of collecting all of the bodies within a fifty-kilometer radius, many of which were in advanced stages of decomposition. Military authorities tried to reconcile the men that their intolerable work was a glorious labor and an honored assignment. 

Upon their return home, the reception of African-American troops varied greatly. In large Northern cities they were welcomed with respect and enthusiasm, but in rural areas, especially in the South, they were often met with hostility. New York was particularly outstanding for the treatment of its black veterans, as they held a victory parade up Fifth Avenue for the 369th Infantry Regiment, who had returned to the city on February 12, 1919. Unfortunately, returning black veterans in the South experienced the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which was revived in 1915. The number of reported lynchings grew from sixty-four in 1918 to eighty-three in 1919, and at least ten of the 1919 victims were black veterans, some of them still in their military uniform. Although racial conditions failed to improve significantly after the war, the impact of the First World War was of great importance to African-American history; The war effort allowed black men to assert their citizenship, exposed them to new lands and new people, and allowed them to fight for their country, resulting in staking a personal claim to democracy that would inspire the political ideals of future generations.