Briefing - Black Americans and the Draft in World War I
It has long been charged that the Selective Service System discriminated against African Americans, drafting them in inordinate numbers in contrast to white Americans. And in fact, during World War I it is clear that the draft took one in three black registrants, but only one in four white registrants. This certainly indicates an imbalance, and has long been used as an argument to further the claim that the draft discriminated against blacks Americans.
But is this true?
Actually, it’s simultaneously both true and untrue, but is still not necessarily evidence of deliberate discrimination..
|American Military Manpower in the First World War|
|Regular Army|| c.|| 545,100|| (c. 10,000)|
|National Guard|| c.|| 433,500|| (c. 10,000) |
|Army Reserve|| c.|| 183,800|
| Draftees|| c.|| 2,894,000|| (c. 368,000)|
| Total Army|| c.|| 4,057,100||(c. 388,000)|
|Navy|| c.|| 520,200|| (c. 10,000)|
|Marine Corps || c.|| 78,700|
|Total Armed Forces|| c.|| 4,656,000|| (c. 410,000)|
|Note: Figures do not tally due to rounding. Note that Hispanic-Americans were largely included as white at the time. Omitted entirely are c. 10,000 Philippine Scouts, plus the c. 14,000 men of the Philippine National Guard Division that existed for about three months. Figures also omit the provisional internal security forces known as the United States Guards and the various State Guard organizations formed by several states.|
Nearly 4.7 million men, and a handful of women, wore the uniform during World War I. Of these, about 1,760,000 men came in voluntarily, through enlistment in the Regular Army, National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy (and its reserve components, the Naval Reserve, the National Naval Volunteers, and the Naval Militia), or the Marine Corps; Only about 30,000 of these men were African Americans. This is no reflection on the patriotism of black Americans. In fact, in the first few days of the war, black men flocked to the recruiting stations in commendable numbers, so many, in fact, that the War Department, which had no mobilization plan to speak of, didn’t know what to do with them. Aside from the four traditionally black regiments of the Regular Army, the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry, there was no provision for recruiting black troops, and even the proposed induction of the handful of black National Guard units (the 15th New York, by far the largest, at nearly 3,000, as well as the 8th Illinois, the District of Columbia’s 1st Separate Battalion, the 9th Ohio Battalion, and individual companies from Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Tennessee) could not absorb the number of black men who offered themselves for service. So, on April 24, 1917, little more than two weeks after the U.S. declared war on Germany, the War Department announced that it would accept no further black men for voluntary enlistment until further notice because “Colored organizations filled.”
Now the regulations of the Selective Service System required that all men within certain age limits register for possible military service. This included men already in the service, who were classified as I-C and, of course, except from the draft. So while the pool men registered for the draft included nearly 1.8 million who were already under arms, of whom only about 2-percent of whom were African-Americans.
Is it therefore any surprise that there was an imbalance in the proportion of black men drafted to their percentage within the pool of registrants? So while there certainly was discrimination against African Americans in the Armed Forces during World War I, the raw numbers do not suggest that it was at work in the draft.