Salford academic says mistreatment of African American soldiers in First World War was 'precursor' towards Black Lives Matter movement

Categories: Research, School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology

The racial discrimination of African American soldiers during the First World War and the historical overlooking of their successes on the battlefield was a turning point in the black struggle for civil rights in America and a precursor to today’s Black Lives Matter movement, a University of Salford academic has said.

In his paper An Inferior Technician? African American signallers in the First World War, published in the Historical Research Journal, Dr Brian Hall, a military historian and Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Military History, also provides multiple examples of a deliberately orchestrated effort by racist white military officials to thoroughly discredit and undermine the combat performance of African American soldiers.

In particular, he details how the ­­mistreatment and historical dismissal of the achievements of the 325th Field Signal Battalion - the only African American signalling unit in the US Army - strengthened the African American resolve to challenge the white supremacy of the time and that contrary to official records, were more than capable of performing their specialist role in the field.

Dr Hall’s paper provides a fresh insight into the formation, wartime performance and subsequent post-war trajectories of the men of the historic battalion and also on the black civil rights movement which was in its infancy at the time.

Dubbed as ‘mentally inferior’ by the United States Army War College following the war, Dr Hall examines the neglect of the unit which served in the 92nd division in the US Second Army and who played a significant role during the largest and bloodiest US operation towards the end of the war in 1918.

Dr Hall writes: “That a black signal battalion was raised and fielded by the US Army in the largest war the nation had fought up until that point, and that the black officers and men of this battalion proved themselves competent specialists, thoroughly challenged not only the traditional notions of specialisms within the army, but also some of the fundamental principles undermining Jim Crow ideology, adding further fuel to the fears and insecurities of white America, whilst strengthening African American resolve to challenge white supremacy.”

The paper chronicles the formation of the division and provides new insight into their training experience in Chillicothe, Ohio in preparation for the war. It seeks to uncover the truths behind the conclusions drawn about the battalion in military records and highlights how they were repeatedly subject to racial inequality, segregation and discrimination from both high command and their white superiors in the field.

It sheds new light on the regiment’s involvement in the famed Groupment Durant operation during the Meuse-Argonne battle in September 1918 which reapportions some of the blame for the operation’s failure from the battalion onto their neighbouring white officer-led 77th Division.

It also illustrates the heroics of the battalion during the Woevre Plain operation towards the German city of Metz in November 1918, which managed to advance 3km into the German line – the most notable accomplishment of any unit in the US Second Army - despite ‘machine gun bullets splitting the air by thousands and shrapnel pouring down like rain.’

Following the officers’ experience in a far more racially tolerant society in Europe, Dr Hall writes that the veterans were able to channel their experience into a sustained commitment to fight for racial equality, social justice and civil rights in their home country.

He charts the route that many veterans took to progressing the black civil rights movement such as J. Alvin Jones who lobbied for better jobs, education and pay for African Americans and was elected to the Maryland Senate – the only black senator in a southern state at that time. One of the most prominent veterans was James W. Ford, who became an integral member of the Communist Party of the United States, rising rapidly up the ranks to becoming the first black person on a presidential ticket in 1932, 1936 and 1940.

Dr Hall writes: “Clearly, not every veteran of the battalion was radicalised as a result of his wartime experience. However, since armies are ‘political constructions, both reflective of and captive to the identity politics that define a political community’, the case of the 325th Field Signal Battalion provides a historical lens through which to understand the antecedents of today’s Black Lives Matter movement; how through resilience, dedication and determination, a specialist group of African American soldiers fought against the backdrop of state-sponsored violence, the ‘key marker of white supremacy’ and in the process, made an important, albeit subtle, contribution to the long civil rights movement.”

Dr Brian Hall is a historian of modern war and conflict with a particular interest in contemporary British and European military history, specialising in the history of the First World War. He is the programme leader of the BA Contemporary Military and International History course at the University of Salford.

Image below depicts the 325th Field Signal Battalion in Argonne, France on 1 October 1918. It is provided on behalf of the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

An archive image of the 325th Field Signal Battalion in France

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