On April 6th 1917 America declared war against Germany. It was the first time in the nation’s history that the United States sent soldiers abroad to defend foreign soil. In May 1917, General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing was designated Supreme Commander of the troops in France. He assembled the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in July 1917 and its involvement on the battlefield tipped the balance in favor of Allied Forces towards the middle of 1918.
African-Americans were eager to show their patriotism in the hope of being recognized as full citizens. They assumed that military service would grant them equal citizenship, but Pershing refused to integrate the armed services.
By assigning them to the French army, he fulfilled a pledge to supply combat regiments to the French, whilst at the same time solving his dilemma of how to use ‘unwanted’ African-American regiments.
About 40,000 black soldiers (including 104 volunteer medical doctors) served under French commanders, largely in the 93rd Division which consisted of the 369th through to the 372nd regiments. They experienced intense combat. The Germans feared their ferocity, the French honored their bravery.
The American divisions who fought in France and Belgium were overwhelmingly white. The AEF applied a strict segregation policy that created separate racial units. As Pershing refused to allow black divisions to serve under white command, African-American regiments joined French forces, using French weapons, consuming French rations. Only their uniform distinguished them as part of the American forces.
Racism was deeply embedded in the military. Among officers and the rank and file, white soldiers felt no compunction in demeaning their black counterparts. Many of them were busy spreading rumors among the civilian population that blacks were rapists and thieves. The German propaganda-machine tried to make use of this disharmony by dropping pamphlets promising respect to and safety for black soldiers in “sunny” Southern Germany if they would surrender.
As black soldiers were considered less able fighters by their superiors, only one fifth of them were deployed at the front (as opposed to two thirds of the white personnel). The others formed “labor battalions” involved in unloading ships, building roads, and digging trenches. These battalions were viewed as being the “dregs” of the forces.
The 369th infantry Regiment, formed from the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, was first assigned to the French 16th Division and then to the 161st Division. Nicknamed the “Harlem Hell Fighters,” the regiment suffered heavy casualties, but never lost a man through capture or surrendered a trench to the enemy. The 369th was the first regiment to reach the Rhine River.
On December 13th, 1918, one month after Armistice Day, the French government awarded the Croix de Guerre medal to 170 individual members of the 369th for the valor they displayed in combat and a unit citation was awarded to the entire regiment.
The 370th Infantry Regiment was also one of few African-American regiments that served in combat and the only one commanded entirely by black officers. Its history was tied to the 8th Illinois Regiment originally formed in 1898 by the recruitment of black soldiers from communities in Chicago and Springfield. The regiment made history as it was the only unit to be led by black officers to fight in the Spanish-American War.
Mobilized in October of 1917, the 370th Regiment was nearly 3,000 strong. After completion of training in March 1918, it joined the other 93rd Division regiments, sailed to France, and were assigned to the French Army.
The men of the 370th fought with distinction in the Battle of Argonne and made such an impact that their German enemies praised them with the nickname “Schwarze Teufel” (Black Devils). Fighting near the border with the French 10th Army towards the end of war, the 370th crossed into Belgium to confront remaining German forces.
Thus on November 10/11, 1918, the sleepy French-speaking Ardennes village of Petite-Chapelle, Province of Namur, became the only Belgian location to have been liberated by a unit of black American soldiers.
African-Americans joined the Great War to prove their patriotic sense of duty. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) encouraged this spirit in order to counteract racial stereotypes. Having fought for democracy in Europe, black service men hoped for fairer treatment at home. On their return, the country was just as racist as before.
When the 369th returned from the front in 1919, it enjoyed a boisterous parade in New York City to celebrate its contributions. But many other black veterans experienced hostility, finding themselves subject to verbal abuse and assault. The 370th was welcomed home to Chicago in a great celebration on February 17th, 1919, but the festivities were short-lived.
Many 370th soldiers were born in the city’s Bronzeville district which was expanding fast because of the Great Migration from Southern rural states. Work was hard to find for returning troopers and simmering racial tensions erupted into violence during the Red Summer of 1919.
Some twenty-five race riots were reported throughout the country. Having fought to defend democracy in Europe, former black soldiers now fought to defend their own communities from hatred and discrimination.
It was not until 1927 that Chicago’s Victory Monument was unveiled in honor of the Eighth (370th) Regiment at 35th Street and King Drive. It took three decades before President Harry Truman in July 1948 issued Executive Order 9981 to abolish segregation in the Armed Forces.
Music & Liberation
When regiments of African-American troops arrived in France, they brought with them dozens of well-drilled professional musicians to boost morale and act as musical ambassadors. Playing rousing marches, spirituals, and “plantation melodies,” these bands introduced Continental audiences to looser and more exuberant rhythms than they were accustomed to. To them, early jazz expressed the joy of imminent liberation.
Jazz was America’s cultural gift to the world. It exploded on the European scene as the wartime soundtrack of hope and renewal. In the afterglow of the Armistice that ended the fighting, Paris and other cities exhibited the elation of freedom. Many American soldier-musicians fell in love with the racially relaxed atmosphere that they experienced. Though the French had their own racial issues, black Americans found a welcoming country devoid of Jim Crow segregation.
Apart from band leaders themselves, the line-up of musicians who served in France and Belgium was a veritable Who’s Who of early jazz. Names include Sam Wooding, Elmer Chambers, Herb Flemming, Jimmy Bertrand, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Happy Caldwell, Ward “Dope” Andrews, Joe “Kaiser” Marshall, Noble Sissle, Opal Cooper, and many others.
The “Old Eighth Illinois” Regiment Band was led by George Edmund Dulf. Once a prominent figure in black minstrel shows, he turned the band into a nationally recognized unit that was an aspirational model for subsequent military bands. Under his baton, jazz became part of the band’s repertoire.
In 1917, the name Charles “Charlie” Alexander was first listed as Band Sergeant for the 370th Regiment. He served in France and took part in the liberation of Petite-Chapelle. When members of the his regiment sailed back from Brest to New York on La France on February 2, 1919, the band roster mentions George Dulf accompanied by forty-eight musicians. Amongst them was Charles Alexander.
After the war Charlie pursued a career as a professional musician, playing the keyboard in theatre orchestras in the early 1920s. Louis Armstrong would become his most famous boss.
Sleepy Time Down South
The Okeh label (General Phonograph Corporation) was founded by German immigrant Otto K. E. Heinemann in 1918 in New York. He issued songs and dance numbers, but also provided niche recordings in German, Czech, Polish, Swedish, and Yiddish for immigrant communities. Beginning with Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (Okeh 4169), the company produced a series of race records from 1920 onwards. Starting in November 1925, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five New Orleans jazz recordings (all produced in Okeh’s Chicago studio) proved popular.
By 1926, the company was sold to Columbia Records but maintained its name. Okeh 41504 was a composition by the brothers Otis and Leon René and Clarence Muse and recorded in April 1931 in Chicago. The jazz band performing the song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” featured Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Charles Alexander on piano.
With nostalgic lyrics referring to the Great Migration, Louis starts the song by striking up a brief conversation with Charlie about their home back in New Orleans. The latter actually hailed from Ohio, but Armstrong would often jokingly introduce his Cincinnati-born pianist as being a boy from The Big Easy.
The song is now considered a jazz standard and was Armstrong’s theme tune for some four decades. It was one of the last recordings in which Alexander took part. Soon after Armstrong returned to working with smaller ensembles and in 1932 Charlie went his own way once again. He eventually settled in California.
Illustrations, from above: 370th Infantry Regiment; German propaganda targeting African-American troops in WWI; Croix de Guerre medal; homecoming of the 370th in Chicago; Victory Monument, or World War I Black Soldiers’ Memorial, Chicago, Illinois by Leonard Crunelle; and When It’s Sleepy Time Down South record.