When the United States became involved in World War I in 1917, more than a million African Americans registered to serve. According to the Library of Congress, over 350,000 served during World War I.
African Americans served in the Infantry, Cavalry, Engineer Corps, Field Artillery, Coast Artillery, Signal Corps, Medical Corps, Hospital and Ambulance Corps, Aviation Corps, Veterinary Corps and Depot Brigades.
In the South and in Georgia, some African American men were prevented from registering for the draft by their employers. Some were working for landowners who didn’t want them to register or report for duty. Employers would hide their notice to report for duty, which resulted in potential recruits being arrested. (Georgia Encyclopedia, World War I in Georgia)
In all, 3,600 African American recruits from Georgia were sent to Camp Gordon in Chamblee. Camp Gordon was a World War I encampment built in early 1917 on land that now includes DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.
The first African American recruits began arriving on Oct. 3, 1917. The men were housed in an area known as Block 1, with the same type of facilities but in a separate area of the camp. Segregation and discrimination made life at Camp Gordon and other World War I camps difficult. The African American men who signed up to serve hoped that by showing their patriotism they might be recognized as full citizens.
In November 1917, 1,300 African Americans from Camp Gordon were sent overseas to France, primarily as part of service battalions. (Atlanta Constitution, November 11, 1917). All African American soldiers at Camp Gordon were led by white officers.
Officer training for African Americans was only available at Fort Des Moines in Des Moines, Iowa. This segregated training program was established in May 1917.
An Oct. 10, 1917 article and photograph in the Atlanta Constitution references a policy of never letting the number of African American soldiers at Camp Gordon exceed 25 percent.
Somewhere between 40,000-50,000 African American recruits served under French commanders during World War I. Most were part of the 93rd division of the American Expeditionary Force. The 93rd became known as Blue Helmets because they fought alongside the French wearing French blue helmets while wearing the U. S. uniform.
France awarded honors and medals to multiple regiments of both the 92nd and 93rd divisions. One hundred seventy-one African Americans received the French Legion of Honor.
It was several decades before two African American soldiers were awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor. From the 93rd Division, Cpl. Freddie Stowers was awarded his medal posthumously on April 24, 1991. Likewise, Sgt. Henry Johnson received the medal posthumously on June 2, 2015. (nps.gov)
Here are records of three African American soldiers from Georgia, all reporting to Camp Gordon in Chamblee, all beginning their service in the 157th Depot Brigade, and deserving of respect and gratitude as were all African Americans who served during World War I.
Sam Hughes of Jeffersonville served overseas from June of 1918 until the end of war. He was part of the Replacement Draft, serving in France with the 93rd Division, 369th Infantry.
Alexander Merkerson of Alapaho began his service at the age of 18. He was part of the 92nd Division, Company E 317th Engineers. He served overseas from June 1918 until the end of the war, returning to the U.S. in March 1919.
Clarence Powell of Savannah was almost 22 years old when he began his service. He was part of the 93rd Division, 371st Infantry. Powell died of pneumonia overseas in December 1918. He served at the Champagne sector and Vegoes sector and is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. (American Battles Monuments Commission)