Last updated: October 26, 2022
In 1914, as war erupted in Europe, most Americans saw little reason to become involved. The bloodshed and destruction overseas was far removed from their everyday life. Three years later, though, after a series of provocations against the United States, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation of war against Germany. Wilson declared, "The world must be made safe for democracy." Those words resonated with African Americans and who believed this to be an opportunity for equality. It would be hypocritical, they argued, for the nation to fight for democracy in Europe while continuing to treat the black population at home as second class citizens. Over 370,000 African Americans enlisted in the armed forces. Storer College sent 104 of her students and alumni off to war.
In 1859, when the abolitionist John Brown came to Harpers Ferry, teaching an African American how to read and write was illegal. Eight years later, after a bloody 4-year Civil War, Storer College opened on Camp Hill to do just that. First operating as a normal school, Storer grew to become a four year degree granting institution. The college graduated over 7,000 students before closing in 1955. Alumni include Jazz musician, Don Redman; educator, Coralie Franklin Cook; author Joseph Jeffrey Walters and the first democratically elected president of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Most importantly, Storer College always emphasized a sense of duty. Many students and alumni served proudly in the military during national and international hostilities, stretching from the Civil War through World War II.
Storer College president Henry T. McDonald documented 104 Storer men who served in the army and navy during World War I. McDonald asked each man to send a picture of themselves in uniform and to share their experiences. During the summer of 1917, as photographs and letters arrived at campus, racial violence in Missouri and Texas shocked the nation. Over 100 African Americans were killed, including 17 soldiers. Another 63 troopers were court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison for retaliating against discrimination. Still, blacks enlisted, insisting that they deserved the right to fight on the front lines. Most however, including those from Storer, labored in service units. Eventually, two combat divisions, the 92nd and 93rd, and an officers' training camp for black candidates were also created.
Unsure of what to do with two black combat units, the U.S. Army decided to "loan" one division to the French. The 93rd, the only division to serve completely under French command, gained the respect of the French and received numerous commendations. The 92nd Division did not fare as well. Many of the unit's white army officials spread vicious lies about their men among the French civilians, characterizing black soldiers as rapists and deviants. African American officers were especially targeted and some were unjustly transferred or court-martialed. Despite the discrimination and abuse, both divisions proved their mettle as the only black units to experience front line combat. Their largest action was in the Muse-Argonne Offensive. Serving in the 351st Field Artillery, 92nd Division, were Storer College alumni Robert A. McNeal (class of 1908) and Maurice Reid (class of 1914).
Many of Storer's soldiers sent letters to President McDonald as requested. Robert P. Green with the 808th Pioneer Infantry Regiment, Medical Corps, American Expeditionary Forces, wrote, "I am glad that I was physically fit for the service, although I have had it tough at times…." Gouveneur M. Page (class of 1908) in the 803rd Infantry Regiment said, "I am sure Storer contributed generously in men..., showing in her true way her liberal and mighty spirit." And some, like Henry C. Ridgley (class of 1915), remarked on the stark differences between the men's treatment in France in comparison to America: “The one thing for which the French people will be ever remembered is that they show no prejudice toward a man because of his color...in other words they say "A Man is a Man...."
The armory firehouse, where John Brown was captured, moved to the Storer College campus in 1910. There, the building became the first museum to honor the abolitionist and his campaign for freedom. This campus museum also displayed items sent to President McDonald from the soldiers and sailors serving overseas. Gifts sent by the men included a copy of the New York Herald in French, pieces of shrapnel, a German joke book, machine gun bullets and a silver letter opener used by the Crown Prince of Germany. By far the most popular items sent home where German helmets. Robert G. Green sent a helmet that was "a source of wonderment...large enough for an atlas to wear." Clarence T. Napper (class of 1913) described his helmet as one "captured from a German, or left by him when he went "west" or somewhere else."
Of the 116,000 Americans who lost their lives during World War I, only one came from Storer College. John W. Tindley served in the 813th Pioneer Infantry as part of the Service of Supply (SOS) units. These men dug ditches, cleaned latrines, buried the dead and labored as stevedores on the docks. On October 3, 1918, while serving in France, John Tindley died of pneumonia. Never to return home again, the soldier was buried in Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, an American military cemetery located in northern France. Private Tindley was remembered in his college newspaper as "the one Storer boy for whom a gold star will always shine in our service flag."
When World War I ended on November 11, 1918, African American troops were hopeful that their patriotic sacrifices abroad would help them in their fight for full civil rights in America. Homecoming parades for returning black troops attracted thousands of people and instilled a spirit of determination among the African American community. On February 17, 1919, the Harlem Hellfighters, members of the 93rd Division, marched on New York City's famed 5th Avenue in front of over a million spectators. That May, Crisis magazine editor and Niagara Movement founder, W.E.B. Du Bois, declared, "We return! We return from fighting! We return fighting! Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why."
Postwar America was anything but peaceful. African Americans quickly found themselves fighting again, many for their very survival. Race riots erupted across the country amid a resurgence of white supremacy. The number of reported lynchings rose from 64 in 1918 to 83 in 1919, and at least eleven of those victims were World War I veterans still in uniform. This scourge only deepened the resolve of African Americans to protest racial injustice, assert their citizenship and hold the nation accountable. Hundreds of thousands of black veterans, among them students from Storer College, had served their country and fought for freedom abroad. As Du Bois and the Niagara Movement declared in 1906 on the Storer campus, “The battle we wage is not for ourselves, but for all true Americans.” So it is to this day.