World War I slowed the flow of European immigrants into the United States at the same time that it increased the need for industrial workers in the Northeast and Midwest. To help fill the void, previously segregated factories began hiring African-Americans from the rural South. Over the course of the war and the next several decades, large numbers of African-Americans moved from the former slave-holding South to the industrial Midwest and Northeast. So many African Americans made the journey north that the entire period is known as The Great Migration. During the war, more than 1 million blacks left the poor, rural South for better jobs in the North, radically altering the racial balance of the United States. Before 1910, the black population of Chicago was 2%; by 1970 the figure was 33%, and much of that change happened during the years immediately following the war. One of the great lasting legacies of World War I is its influence on the racial makeup of the United States.
African-American soldiers served in the United States Army long before WWI. Free blacks and slaves enlisted in state militias and the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The 54th Massachusetts regiment, immortalized in the movie Glory, is but one of the many black units that fought for the North in the Civil War. The famous Buffalo Soldiers on the western frontier were revered for their martial abilities, and African-Americans fought in the Spanish-American War as well. But World War I marked a turning point for black soldiers, both on the battlefield and when they returned home.
Over 200,000 African-Americans fought with American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France. But none of them fought alongside white American troops. Instead, the fully segregated black units fought with the French Army and took orders from French commanders. This was partly a bargain struck by General Pershing to appease the French, who needed fresh troops in their lines ASAP. Mostly, however, it was a sign of how pervasively racist the United States and the AEF were. White troops refused to fight alongside black troops, even though they were all fighting on the same side.
Although black units were eager to fight in the front lines, most were used only in supporting roles. Still, 171 African-Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor for their heroism in battle, and the 369th Infantry, an all-black unit, was one of the most decorated American units of the war. At war's end, over 600 African-Americans had been commissioned as officers, a rank denied to them before the war. Though still segregated and suffering terrible prejudice, black soldiers made important strides for race relations during the war.
Black soldiers fought for their country, facing German bullets and winning decorations for bravery in Europe. But back home in the United States, little changed in terms of race relations. Returning black soldiers suffered terrible prejudice in the South, and the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was quick to rise to the defense of aggrieved veterans, though with mixed success.
Angered at the humane treatment with which the French had treated African Americans during the war, white mobs lynched seventy black veterans—many still in uniform—in the first year after the war. Many Americans of all races were appalled at the treatment these men who had fought for their country received. Some of the early seeds of the Civil Rights Movement were sown during the first years after World War I, when returning veterans were abused and lynched simply for having fought and demanded something like equal treatment. With more and more blacks moving north and west to work for expanding industries, the racial character of America was changing. The terrible treatment of returning black World War I vets would have a profound effect on race relations in all parts of the country for decades to come.