When World War I raged, a D.C. professor fought for black officers' participation
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On May 3, 1917, a letter appeared in a Washington newspaper posing a stark question: “What of the negro?”
The letter’s author was T. Montgomery Gregory, an English professor at Howard University who had been moved to write by events that were rapidly unspooling in the capital. A month earlier, the United States had declared war on Germany, joining a conflict that had already been raging in Europe for nearly three years.
Our military was relatively small then. It was estimated that some 2 million American men would need to be conscripted into the Army in the coming year. Black men had fought in American wars since before the country was a country, a fact Gregory pointed out, writing, “The unbroken loyalty of the negro to the country of his adoption, yes even to the owners of his body, is one of the remarkable facts of history.”
With the United States girding for war, Gregory wondered how men such as himself would be involved. “What part is he to play in this fighting phalanx?” Gregory asked.
Thomas Montgomery Gregory was born in 1877 on the campus of Howard University, where his father, James Monroe Gregory, was a dean and Latin professor. The elder Gregory had been in Howard’s first graduating class. T. Montgomery Gregory earned his undergraduate degree not from Howard but from Harvard — Class of 1910 — but the historically black college was to play an important role in what came next.
As the United States prepared to enter the Great War, the Army announced that 14 officer training camps would be established. Supporters of integration — including such figures as Joel E. Spingarn, a white New Yorker active in the NAACP, and W.E.B. Du Bois , editor of its magazine, the Crisis — believed these camps should include African Americans. The Army disagreed: No black volunteers would be allowed at the camps.
Activists started mobilizing to secure what they saw as the next best thing: a camp to train black officers. A group called the Central Committee of Negro College Men was formed to push for this.
“The headquarters of this group was the basement of the chapel at Howard University,” said Sheila Gregory Thomas, T. Montgomery Gregory’s daughter.
Gregory chaired the group, which sprang into action. Members of the committee lobbied Congress, going from office to office on Capitol Hill to make their case to representatives. If a congressman refused to see them, they left behind a card outlining the situation and pledging the support of the African American community.
Letters and articles appeared in the black press and in the white-owned press. (Gregory’s letter was in the old Washington Times.)
The committee employed stirring language in its plea for a black officer corps: “Let us not mince matters; the race is on trial. It needs every one of its red-blooded, sober minded men. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, business men, and all men who have graduated from high school. Let the college student and graduate come and demonstrate by their presence the principles of virtue and courage learned in the academic halls. Up, brother, our race is calling.”
The effort extended to many fronts in the African American community.
“The colored churches in the District of Columbia were interested,” wrote Emmett J. Scott, an assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker and the highest-ranking African American member of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. “Frequent mass meetings were held by the Howard students; and when additional funds were needed a concert was given in the chapel.”
Figures at the Tuskegee-Normal and Industrial Institute were active, too.
Barely a week after Gregory’s letter appeared, 1,500 black American men had put their names forward. Most were college students or college graduates.
On May 19, the War Department announced that the 17th Provisional Training Regiment would be established for black officer candidates at Fort Des Moines. It was a remote location, chosen, some thought, because it was far from East Coast journalists who would be watching the experiment closely.
T. Montgomery Gregory was among those who attended the camp. He was commissioned as a lieutenant and served stateside in intelligence, his daughter said.
What was the outcome of the campaign launched in a Howard University basement? Or, as Scott put it in a chapter at the end of his 1919 history on black participation in the Great War: “Did the Negro soldier get a square deal?”
Any student of American history probably knows the answer. Two units of black troops — the 92nd and 93rd divisions — served in France. The officers graduated from Fort Des Moines faced discrimination throughout World War I: hazed, denied promotion, denied command, bivouacked in lesser quarters, prohibited from interacting with French civilians.
It wasn’t until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman integrated the armed forces.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.