By Carlos Pulido posted November 18, 2018
Nearly 400,000 African-American soldiers served in the United States Army in the First World War, many of them fought and died to make the world safe for an ideal of democracy that denied them many rights and freedoms back home. Despite being poorly equipped, under-trained, and commanded by white officers who insisted on black inferiority, African-American troops demonstrated a great sense of patriotism and selflessness in representing their country and performed admirably in both combat and noncombat battalions.
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war against Germany. At this time, there were nearly 20,000 African-American soldiers in the United States, many of which had seen active service in both Regular Army and National Guard regiments. Some units were sent to patrol the border with Mexico, while others were sent to southern states to oversee the construction of training camps. Camp Logan near Houston, Texas, was one of the camps being built, and was presided over by the 24th Infantry Regiment, a "colored" battalion.
Many of the men of the 24th came from all over the country and were proud, seasoned troopers. They failed, and reportedly refused to obey Jim Crow laws and regulations pertaining to their race, and as a result of this the citizens of Houston resented their presence. Racial tensions reached their boiling point on August 23, 1917, when a rumor spread that one of the "colored" soldiers had been arrested and killed, a group of armed soldiers determined to avenge the "death" rushed to town and exchanged shots with police and armed civilians. Although the shootout was not long, the casualties were serious, two black soldiers and seventeen white men were killed.
The Houston riot of 1917, or Camp Logan riot, resulted in three trials by court martial for mutiny. Nineteen of the rioting soldiers were executed and forty-one were sentenced to life. This event proved that racial tensions were too high and consequently that African-American troops should not be stationed on Southern soil. Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, believed that any large amount of black troops being sent to any particular camp would be a menace to the surrounding population and to peace and order. Some Southern States felt so strongly on the subject that officials and citizens visited Washington to protest about black troops being sent to their states for training.
A similar situation was nearly averted in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the New York National Guard units were being trained. After a soldier by the name of Noble Sissle was assaulted and mistreated for not removing his hat inside of a white hotel, a group of New York militiamen banded together and marched into town with intentions of shooting, like the soldiers in Houston had before them. Colonel William Hayward, commanding officer of the 15th New York Regiment, intercepted the soldiers in time and brought them back to camp; avoiding another possible riot.
This incident left the War Department with three choices: keep the regiment at Camp Wadsworth and face an eruption from the white citizens in Spartanburg, remove the unit to another camp and display that the War Department would yield to any community if they put forward sufficient pressure, or order the regiment overseas. Ultimately the third alternative was decided upon and the 15th New York National Guard Regiment became one of the first black regiments sent overseas to complete their training.