There were 342,277 Negroes accepted for full military service, a larger percentage of Negro men than of white men, for of white men there were 26.8 per cent accepted, and of Negro men, 31.7 per cent. It is significant that on March 25, 1917, even before war was declared against Germany by the United States, the First Separate Battalion, District of Columbia, National Guard, was called into service. This battalion was placed in charge of watching the water supply and the various power plants of the District of Columbia to prevent any possible attack by inimical aliens. The Negro Guardsmen were chosen because, as one newspaper expressed it, there were no hyphenates among these Americans.
High positions of responsibility, honor, and trust in the army did not come without a determined struggle by Negro Americans. This is illustrated by the campaign that Negroes and their friends had to make to secure training for capable Negro men who wanted to become officers and serve their country in these responsible positions. They were denied opportunity to get training at Plattsburg and the Government Training Camps established by Congress for white officers. Prominent citizens took up the question of provision for the training of Negro officers. Negro students also were deeply interested in the matter. A Central Committee of Negro Colleges, with headquarters at Howard University, in a short time obtained the names of 1,500 competent Negro men who stood ready to enroll at an Officers' Training Camp.
An appeal was made to the War Department for such a camp. Congressmen were interviewed and some senators and representatives gave their approval. Negro churches and national leaders gave their endorsement, the Negro press furnished its support, although some of the Negro people themselves criticized the effort as a move to establish a "Jim-crow" camp. After about three weeks' campaigning in this way, the War Department on May 12, 1917, gave notice that a camp to accommodate about 1,250 men would be established at Fort Dodge, Iowa, on June 15. The committee of Negro college men then turned their efforts to see that the young Negro men throughout the country, capable of passing the examination to enter the camp, would now volunteer. A circular which they sent out said, "No one who has not been in the fight knows what a struggle we have had to obtain the camp. . . . Let us not mince matters; the race is on trial. It needs every one of its red-blooded, noble men."1
On June 15, 1917, Negro men assembled at Des Moines expecting to be trained for a period of three months. At the end of that time, however, the War Department decided to continue the training another month. So dubious had been the men about the intentions of the Government to commission Negro officers that some of them lost hope and dropped out of the camp. The great majority, however, remained, and on October 14, 1917, officers' commissions were issued to 639: 106 as captains, 329 as first lieutenants, and 204 as second lieutenants. These officers were sent to seven different camps where the widely distributed units of the 92d Division, the Negro Division of the Army, were in training.
While these men were in training at Des Moines, a regrettable clash took place in August, 1917, between the Negro soldiers and the citizens of Houston, Texas. This incident aroused intense feeling among the Negro people and great fears and hostile feeling among the white people when Negro troops should be placed in a number of the Southern camps for the training of soldiers. On May 18, 1917, Congress had enacted the Selective Service Act, popularly called the "Draft Law." This was to be applied to black and white alike, and it was evident that if the Negro soldiers were drafted, they would have to be trained somewhere.
1 Quoted in Scott, E. J., work cited, p. 89.
So aroused were some of the white people in some of the states about the matter, however, that officials and citizens presented many protests to the Government at Washington. The War Department first took the position that the Negro and white troops of the National Guard Divisions should be stationed at such posts as the exigencies of the service made necessary. After considerable conference, however, the Secretary of War modified the policy to the extent that while Southern states might take exception to camps of Negroes recruited from Northern states, they could not well object to the Negro draftees from the several districts of their own states.1 This worked hardships upon some of the draftees from states like Alabama, which had only a camp for National Guardsmen. It did work out, however, that Negroes from states like Georgia and Arkansas were thrown into cantonments with draftees from the North and West, and it soon developed that white and Negro men could get on together in the same camps without much friction.
There had been much agitation in the newspapers and considerable question raised as to what would be the action and attitude of the Negroes, especially those in the South, when called upon to respond to the "Draft Law." There was undoubtedly dissatisfaction among the Negro people about evils from which they had suffered for so many years. Official testimony also from the Department of Justice and from the Military Intelligence Bureau of the War Department showed that the Germans had really tried to incite the Negroes against the Government.
1 Scott, E. J., work cited, pp. 72-77.
Some of the white newspapers greatly exaggerated the amount of this German propaganda and created the impression that it was gaining a great headway among Negroes and that they would be likely to take exception to the draft or become deserters. The Patriotic Education Society of Washington sent out several stories about relations of German agents to Negro unrest in the South. The facts were that mistreatment in America was at the bottom of such unrest among Negroes and not German agents. Some sentiment, too, was expressed by one or two Southern newspapers that Negroes should not be drafted at all because they had not equally shared in the benefits of the government.1 During the entire period of the World War, however, the Negro people of America showed an elevated spirit in rising above the wrongs and injustices they have suffered at the hands of their white neighbors and rallied unselfishly to the support of the Stars and Stripes.