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19141914–1945: The World Wars

African American servicemen and women saw radical change by the mid-20th century. The military was officially desegregated by executive order in 1948. The Korean War put this new policy to the test. As Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Gragg explained, “You still had white units, and Black units . . . 90 percent of all Black units were commanded by white officers.” Despite continued discrimination, Black servicemen and servicewomen served in all combat elements and participated in all major operations, earning Medals of Honor, Purple Hearts, and Bronze Stars. The struggle for military integration paralleled the struggle for the integration of American society that would continue playing out over the ensuing decades.

Prior to 1948, the fight against European Fascism brought the contradictions of American democracy into sharp view. Some people felt African Americans should not risk their lives for a country that violated their civil rights. Others felt the war brought an opportunity to advance the fight for equality both abroad and at home. In 1942 The Pittsburgh Courier published a letter from a defense worker in Wichita, Kansas, who asked, “Should I Sacrifice to live ‘Half American'?” Referencing the popular V for Victory signs, he called for the creation of a double V for victory sign—victory over enemies without, victory over enemies within. The Courier published the Double V Campaign on February 7, 1942, and garnered widespread support for military participation and domestic activism amongst African Americans. Despite the campaign, African American soldiers in World War II, like the Tuskegee Airmen, served in a segregated military just as they had for World War I.

Most African Americans who enlisted in World War I became part of segregated non-combat supply divisions based in France, but in December 1917, the 369th Infantry regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, became the first Black combat unit in Europe. Black women also participated in war efforts in Europe, working with the YMCA in France to manage leave stations, canteens, and hostess houses for American soldiers. After the war, during the Red Summer of 1919, more than 80 African Americans were lynched, some wearing their military uniforms.