I've often wondered why we have a Memorial Day and a Veterans Day. One is a holiday to pay tribute to those who died serving in the military and the other is to honor the end of World War I on November 11, 1918. I’ll be the first to admit that I never seriously considered the valor of Black soldiers during global war, until today-- you know these schools don’t teach us our history like that, so I’m learning and teaching as we go.
I was today years old when I learned that more than 350,000 Black men served in segregated units during WWI, but very few were involved in combat because they were assigned to labor and stevedore battalions, unloading ships, transporting to and from the bases, ports, and railroad depots. They also provided support to those on the front lines by digging trenches, clearing the battlefields, and burying soldiers killed in action.
I also learned that the Black division known as the Harlem Hellfighters assigned to the French Army to fight against the Germans were treated far better by Parisians than their own countrymen. Black soldiers endured the same treatment as Black civilians in America and while they fought for freedom abroad, the battle on the home front was a war in and of itself. Most Black veterans were not welcomed home or honored for their service. Instead, they became targets for mistreatment, violence, and even legal lynchings across the country that erupted race riots remembered as the Red Summer of 1919.
The fact that so many Black men were returning armed with military experience brought a different kind of fear among whites in this country because they knew our soldiers now understood the art of war. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge all the Black veterans that joined forces to give birth to the Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights and Labor Movements. They left this country on the premise that it would be safe for democracy and at the very least prove their right to equality. They returned fighting and the ugly truth is this country isn’t safe for any of us, for the battle to achieve social and political equality is still not won.