The story of the Negro in the army during the World War may be described first in four phases besides the fighting to which Negroes contributed so largely; namely, Negro music in the camps and in the army; the remarkable work done by the Negro labor battalions, particularly stevedore battalions, who were the marvel of the French in their loading and unloading of vessels; the cooperation of Negro agricultural and industrial workers at home in what was called the fourth line of defense; and the active participation in Red Cross work, Food Conservation and Health Campaigns, and in the buying of Liberty Bonds.
Wherever the Negro has gone, he has carried his music and his song. The plaintive melody and romping rhythm, the simple harmony and rollicking, syncopated "jazz" gained the attention of soldiers, black and white, everywhere, and set many a regiment moving its feet, exercising its lungs, and enlivening its spirit. The Negro folk-songs, the war songs, and the Negro band set many a community and camp agog with excitement. It is said that some of the highest officials of the French Army and government eagerly listened to Negro "jazz" music. Especially noteworthy in this connection was the band of Lieutenant James Reese Europe, a part of the 369th Infantry, the "Old Fifteenth New York." As soon as the regiment landed at Brest, France, Europe's band began to play and the populace began to dance. From there, wherever the band went during its stay in France, it gave joy and amusement to all who heard it. So popular was such music that some one coined the phrase, "Jazz won the war." The singing of Negro songs by Sergeant Noble Sissle, the drum major of the band, attracted attention on every occasion, and he was effective in helping to interpret the music to French audiences.1
The first Negro stevedore battalion went to France in June, 1917, and before the end of the War there were about 50,000 in this branch of the army. They received the usual routine training of infantry. At the five French ports, Brest, St. Nazaire, Bordeaux, Havre, and Marseilles, the Negro stevedore regiments, working often amid the mud and the rain, sometimes in twenty-four hour shifts, laughing, frolicking, and singing all the time, became a sight for all who beheld them and won the admiration and praise of all who appreciated that they were holding the "third line of defense" behind the men in the trenches.
The story is told that when a French officer was asked about the unloading of vessels at Bordeaux, he estimated the amount of time in weeks. The American army, however, with its labor battalions and its stevedores working in shifts, night and day, built extensive docks and often unloaded vessels in from thirty-six to-forty-eight hours. One observer reported that a company of Negro stevedores unloaded 1,200 tons of flour in nine and a half hours, setting a record for the A.E.F.; that the same group of stevedores for five days discharged an average of 2,000 tons a day for one shift of workers. Mr. Ralph Tyler, who was in France representing the Committee on Public Information at the time, wrote that in September, 1918, there were handled at the American base ports in France 767,648 tons, or a daily average of 25,588 tons, an increase of nearly ten per cent over August, and that the larger part of this material was handled by Negro stevedores. He remarked that "one who sees the (Negro) stevedores work notes with what rapidity and cheerfulness they work and what a very important cog they are in the war machinery."1 Through all the long hours of toil the Negro stevedores went about their work with cheerfulness, with jokes and laughter, with singing and music and with all the high enthusiasm of Negro disposition.
1 Scott, E. J., History of the Negro in the World War, pp. 300-310. This work furnished considerable documentary data for this account of the Negro in the army during the World War.
An account of the non-combatant service would be incomplete without a statement about the unselfish, devoted, but far-reaching work of the Negro men and women who went overseas in the service of the Y.M.C.A. to give entertainment and encouragement and physical comfort to Negro soldiers, to inspire them with religious and patriotic guidance, and thus to keep up their morale. This organization maintained about fifty-five centers at various cantonments in the United States. Three hundred and fourteen Negro Secretaries served at home and sixty, including five women, went overseas. Their work comprised religious meetings, Bible classes, educational classes, in which thousands of illiterate recruits learned to read and write, athletic activities, moving picture and social entertainments, supplying suitable reading, stationery, stamps, and refreshments.