...Chapter VII

...Treatment of Negro Soldiers in Camp


First Officers' Training Camp for Colored Men at Fort Des Moines, Iowa---Major J. E. Spingarn's Fight for the Establishment of This Camp---Methods of Training Reserve, Officers---Negro Educational Institutions Furnish Personnel---Seven Hundred Colored Officers Commissioned at Fort Des Moines.

While the great nations in Europe were flooding the continent with human blood, leaders in American political thought saw that the United States would sooner or later become a partner in the great cataclysm. The weakness of our Army and Navy crystallized into a national slogan, "Preparedness." Accordingly, several leading citizens in New York and vicinity organized a civilian camp at Plattsburg, N. Y. The purpose of this camp was to fit men to take examinations for commissioned officers for the new National Army which was inevitable. The Government endorsed the proposition and furnished aid to the extent of upkeep and living expenses during the period of training.

But "Plattsburg" was a voluntary---almost a social camp, and true to American tradition no colored men could be admitted to such a camp with white men. When the United States entered the great European war, Congress authorized the establishment of a number of training camps for white officers, the number to be left to the discretion of the Secretary of War. No provision was made for the training of colored officers. After repeated efforts of various kinds, a committee composed of representative citizens, headed by Dr. Joel E. Spingarn of New York City, held a conference with the military authorities. The efforts of the committee were fruitless for the time being, at least, and the committee was dissolved. The project was later taken up by the students of Howard University together with a few members of the faculty and students from other colleges, from Lincoln University, Fisk University, Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Hampton Agricultural and Industrial Institute, Virginia Union Seminary, and Morgan College.

Efforts of Dr. Springarn

Dr. Joel E. Spingarn consulted Gen. Leonard Wood, who was at this time in charge of the Eastern Department, Governor's Island, New York, about the establishment of a "Plattsburg" for colored men. General Wood gave assurance that the same aid and assistance could be given a camp for colored men that were given the camp for white men, provided 200 men of college grade could be secured. Dr. Spingarn set out upon a vigorous campaign, sending letters and circulars in every direction and personally visiting Howard University and kindred institutions. Success crowned his indefatigable industry, but not without great opposition.

Dr. Spingarn's efforts, by many of the important newspapers and leaders of the race, were referred to as being designed to bring about the establishment of a "Jim Crow Camp" for training colored officers. The agitation grew quite violent at times, particularly because of the fact that Dr. Spingarn was Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization generally regarded as standing uncompromisingly for the rights of the Negro people> In his efforts to secure the establishment of this camp Dr. Spingarn had the cooperation of his aide, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, Editor of The Crisis, also regarded as an uncompromising champion of the Negro, and of Col. Charles Young, United States Army, and such virile speakers and leaders as William Pickens and others. The agitation among the Negro group and the recognized friends of the Negro grew so warm that for a while divided counsels threatened the establishment of a camp. Whether through a fortunate or unfortunate turn of circumstances, while this agitation was at its height, Congress declared that a state of war existed between the United States and the Imperial German Government. Immediately, civilian training camps were abolished and fourteen Government camps were established for the training of officers.

Strange and paradoxical as it may seem, America, while fighting for the democratization of the peoples of far-off Europe, was denying democracy to a part---an honest, loyal and patriotic part---of her citizens at home. Fourteen camps were instituted for the training of WHITE officers---none for colored officers, nor were colored men admitted to any of the fourteen camps.

The next best thing seemed to be a separate camp. The students were joined by faculty members and an executive committee was organized with Prof. T. Montgomery Gregory as Chairman. Colored men were fighting the Government in order to wring from it permission to fight for it. The President and Deans of the University gave full cooperation. A convention of the student body was called on Tuesday, May 1, 1917, when money was raised by students and faculty for the dispatch of delegates to take up this matter with the student bodies of various schools.

At the suggestion of Prof. Gregory, the Executive Committee was transformed into the Central Committee of Negro College Men with Mr. C. Benjamin Curley as Secretary, and an office was opened in the basement of Howard University Chapel. The work was so organized that the secretary was in control of the situation at all times and his office became the radiating center from which the latest information was flashed throughout the country. Letters and telegrams flooded the office in quest of details and instructions. The delegates announced success in obtaining in ten days, 1,500 names to be presented according to agreement, to the War Department as a justification for the appeal for an "Officers' Reserve Training Camp for Colored Men."

Meanwhile the committee interviewed Congressmen, leaving a copy of the following card on each Congressman's' desk:


Our country faces the greatest crisis in its history; the Negro, as ever, loyal and patriotic, is anxious to do his full share in the defense and support of his country in its fight for democracy. The Negro welcomes the opportunity of contributing his full quota to the Federal army now being organized. He feels very strongly that these Negro troops should be officered by their own men. The following statement presents the facts upon which we base our request for an officers' reserve training camp for Negroes.

1 (a) Fourteen officers' training camps are to be opened on May 14, 1917, to provide officers for the new Federal Army.

(b) No officers are to be commissioned unless they receive training in one of these fourteen training camps:

(c) The War Department has stated that it is impracticable to admit Negroes to the fourteen established camps;

2 (a) The Negro is to furnish his proportionate quota in this army,

(b) It seems just that the competent and intelligent Negroes should have the opportunity to lead these troops;

(e) One thousand Negro college students and graduates have already pledged themselves to enter such a training camp immediately;

(d) In addition men in the medical profession desire to qualify for service in the Medical Corps, and there are other competent men ready to qualify for other specialized corps provided for;

(e) Records of Negro officers and troops warrant the provision for Negro officers to lead Negro troops.

Lieut. Col. Young...............Major Loving
Capt. Davis.........................Major Walker

3. Therefore, the Negro race requests the establishment of an officers' reserve training camp for Negroes.



FRANK COLEMAN, Chicago,................T. M. GREGORY, Harvard,
W. DOUGLAS, Lincoln,...........................C. H. HOUSTON, Amherst,
W. A. HALL, Union,.................................L. H. RUSSELL, Cornell,
M. H. CURTIS, Howard,..........................C. B. CURLEY, General Secretary,
...........................................................................Howard University,Washington, D. C.

Over 300 Senators and Representatives signified approval, and the War Department was soon the center of a storm of telephone calls and personal interviews.

The colored churches in the District of Columbia were interested. Dr. J. E. Moorland advised that the Y. M. C. A. branches throughout the country be used as recruiting stations, a valuable suggestion which was readily accepted. Frequent mass meetings were held by the Howard students; and when additional funds were needed a concert was given in the chapel. A little later the University Dramatic Club repeated its performance of "Disraeli" .through the courtesy of the management of the Howard Theater, at which time over $125 was raised.

With 1,500 names in the hands of the War Department on May 7, the campaign became more heated. Press articles were sent out by the committee. The following is one of a large variety:


Headquarters and Recruiting Station at Howard University.

"According to the best authorities about 83,000 Negroes will be drafted for the New Federal Army. The Negroes welcome this opportunity of serving their country, and sharing their full responsibilities in this time of national peril. They feel, however, that Negro troops thus raised should be officered by men of their own race and are making strenuous efforts to secure a training camp in which such officers can be prepared. The War Department has stated that it is impracticable to admit Negroes to the fourteen camps for officers to be opened on May 14, 1917. And it has also stated that no officers are to be commissioned unless they receive training in one of these camps. This means that unless some provision is made whereby colored men may be trained for officers these 83,000 Negro troops will be officered exclusively by white officers; and that Negroes qualified both mentally and physically to serve as officers will be forced under the conscription law to serve as privates. The colored man is willing and ready to carry out the duties imposed upon him as an American citizen, and feels that he should be given the same opportunities in the performance of these duties as are given to other American citizens. The Negroes from every section are requesting that the Government provide means whereby colored officers may be trained. The appeal is just, reasonable, and practicable. The proposition is squarely up to the Government. This is no time for sectional differences and race prejudice and the highest patriotism demands that every American citizen be given the opportunity to serve his country in the capacity for which he is best fitted.

"Over one thousand colored men have sent their names to their headquarters at Howard University, and hundreds of others are arriving by mail and telegrams.

"Why should not colored troops be officered by colored men? Their records show them to be competent and efficient, and to deny any class of citizens the opportunity of rendering its best service belies the very theory of our democracy, and the basic principle for which the present war is waged. Our American statesmen should frown upon any procedure that does not offer an equal opportunity for all at all times, but more especially at a time when our country is faced by a foreign foe."

An important conference was held in Washington with Dr. Robert R. Moton, Principal, and Mr. Emmett J. Scott, Secretary of the Tuskegee-Normal and Industrial Institute, by Dean George W. Cook and Professor T. Montgomery Gregory of Howard University and the valued support of Tuskegee Institute enlisted in behalf of the Officers' Reserve Training Camp. The work in Congress was kept up. Communications were sent to President Wilson, Secretary Lansing, Secretary Baker, and other Cabinet officers. Finally there were two important conferences: the one at the War College where President Newman of Howard University, Deans Miller, Cook and Moore, Professors Tunnell and Gregory, Mr. H. E. Moore, Doctors Marshall and Cabannis met and discussed the matter with Major Kingman, then head of the War College; the other with Secretary Baker the following day, when he practically assured the same committee of the establishment of the camp.

"The question of location, it was said, was the only remaining obstacle; to offset this the grounds and buildings of Howard University were offered by the authorities, but were not accepted for various reasons. The tension was then at its height and just as a more extensive campaign was about to be launched President Newman was notified that the camp would be established. This happened about 7 P.M., May 12, 1917.

"The authorization of the camp brought joy unspeakable to the hearts of the committee and students. Smiles and handshakes soon made the campus seem like an old-fashioned Methodist prayer meeting and the news was heralded far and wide. The following was sent to all those who had submitted their names:

" 'Dear Sir:

" 'The War Department has announced that a camp to which colored men can be admitted to 'be trained as officers will be established at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, June 15th. Twelve hundred fifty men will be admitted. Two hundred fifty will be selected from the regular army and one thousand from the various states and the District of Columbia on a pro rata basis. The camp will be organized and maintained on the same regulations as all the other camps now in operation.

" 'There will be recruiting stations throughout the country to which applicants must report for physical and mental examinations. The mental training will be rigid and none but thoroughly qualified men ought to apply.

" 'Successful applicants must pay their transportation to the camp. They will be reimbursed at the rate of 3 1/2 cents per mile from their homes to Des Moines by the shortest route. The men will be paid while in camp but the exact amount has not yet been determined. Additional information will be given to the Press as soon as the War Department issues it. Watch the papers from this date. The race is on trial. Come to camp determined to make good.

'Yours truly,

General Secretary,
Central Committee of Negro College Men.'
Howard University, Washington, D. C.
May 23, 1917.

"Of the 1500 names submitted, these were almost without exception men from colleges and averaged between 18 and 25. The War Department in the interim suggested that in as far as possible only men between 25 and 40 be included. This meant additional work, but the committee met it cheerfully and augmented its already widely advertised propaganda by numerous press articles. The following is one of the many:

'Howard University,
'Washington, D. C.,
May 24, 1917

'Dear Brother:

" 'A Reserve Officers' Training Camp, accommodating 1250, at Des Moines, Iowa, for Colored men, to start June 15th. Such was the official announcement of the War Department last Saturday, May 19th.

" ' Stop but a moment, brother, and realize what this means. At present, we have only three officers of the line in the army; in less than four months we shall have 1250 officers. Our due recognition at last. But no one who was not in the fight knows what a struggle we had to obtain the camp. Only a few of those in authority would support the project; most of them did not want to consider it; and the remainder were bitterly against it. "Why waste time trying to train Negroes to be officers," they said, "when the Negro can't fight unless he is led by white officers?" The truth is, the Negro has had no chance to fight under his own leadership. Now the chance has come; the greatest opportunity since the Civil War. But what if we fail? Eternal disgrace! Our enemies will say forever: "Oh, yes, the Ninth and Tenth were uneducated men; but just as soon as the Negro gets a little education he becomes a coward." There is a terrible responsibility resting upon us. The Government has challenged the Negro race to prove its worth, particularly the worth of its educated leaders. We must succeed and pour into the camp in overwhelming numbers. Let no man slack.

" 'Some few people have opposed the camp as a "Jim Crow" camp; they say we are sacrificing principle for policy. Let them talk. This camp is no more " Jim Crow " than our newspapers, our churches, our schools. In fact, it is less "Jim Crow" than our other institutions, for here the Government has assured us of exactly the same recognition, treatment, instruction and pay as men in any other camp get. The Government bears all expenses, including transportation, uniform, and keep; and, in addition, pays a salary of not less than $75 a month while in training. When commissioned, the lowest salary is $145 a month. But the salary, though not to be despised, is not the fundamental element. Our great task is to meet the challenge hurled at our race. Can we furnish officers to lead our own troops into battle; or will they have to go again (and if they have to go now, they will go forever under white officers!

" '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.

" 'We cannot tell you how to register just now; but in a few days we shall know everything. What you are to do NOW is to send this letter to another brother and tell him to do the same, to pass the word along, and to stir up all the enthusiasm in your district. Watch all the papers and when you see news distribute it. Look for all bulletins; and, above all, be ready!

" 'Just think a moment how serious the situation is. Peal the war tocsin; stand by the race. If we fail, our enemies will dub us COWARDS for all time; and we can never win our rightful place. But if we succeed---then eternal success; a mighty and far-reaching step forward; 1250 Colored Army officers leading Negro troops. Look to the future, brother, the vision is glorious!

" 'Ever your brothers,

As a result of these persistent efforts a training camp for colored officers was authorized by the Secretary of War on the 19th of May and soon thereafter the candidates for commissions set out for Fort Des Moines, Iowa, where they were to undergo training. The Honorable Champ Clark, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said that this marked "an epoch in American history and a new day for the Negro."

The student officers were put through weeks of intensive training under Col. C. C. Ballou, his staff, and a group of colored noncommissioned officers from the four colored regiments of the Regular Army. The Presidents and other officers of the various colored institutions of learning whose officers, teachers and students were in training visited the camp and spoke to the officer-candidates. Dr. George W. Cabannis, a colored physician of Washington, D. C., voluntarily gave up his practice and enlisted in the Y. M. C. A. work as a Secretary, and took charge of the Y. M. C. A. tent at Ft. Des Moines, working in closest cooperation with Col. Ballou and his military aides.

It was expected that the training would last three months. At the end of that period, however, the War Department decided to continue training for another month. Suspicion became rife among the men; many of them dropped out, giving as a reason that "the War Department never intended to commission colored men as officers in the army."

There were only a few of those faint-hearted fellows, however; the great majority remained, and on October 14, 1917, Col. W. T. Johnson of the Adjutant General's Office arrived at Ft. Des Moines with commissions for 639 officers,---106 captains; 329 first lieutenants, and 204 second lieutenants.

On that day, October 14, 1917, amidst impressive ceremonies, the 17th Provisional Training Regiment, as the Fort Des Moines Training Camp was called, was formed on the drill-ground facing the Administration building; here with bared heads and uplifted hands these 639 members of the regiment (the unsuccessful members having been dismissed) took the solemn oath which was administered by Col. Johnson, Chief of the Division of Training Camps, War Department.

On the next day, October 15, the successful candidates received commissions and were ordered to report after fifteen days' leave of absence to their respective camps. In equally divided groups the 639 officers were sent to the following camps, reporting for duty on the 1st of November, 1917: Camp Funston, Kansas; Camp Dodge, Iowa; Camp Grant, Illinois; Camp Sherman, Ohio Camp Meade, Maryland; Camp Dix, New Jersey; Camp Upton, New York.

It was at these widely distributed camps that the various units of the 92d Division (the authorized colored Division) were trained.

Some of the difficulties which befell the 92d Division are to be ascribed to the fact that the units of the Division were never united until they reached France, being trained in the seven camps here mentioned; this was true of no other division of the army sent overseas.

On October 15, 1917, impressive exercises were held in the Y. M. C. A. tent, Dr. George W. Cabannis of Washington, D. C., presiding, following the bestowal of the commissions. A program had been hastily arranged. Addresses were made by Brigadier General C. C. Ballou, who had started the training at Fort Des Moines and who had been made a Brigadier General and assigned to Fort Dodge; by Col. Hunt, who had succeeded Col. Ballou in charge of the 17th Provisional Training Regiment training camp; by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams of Chicago, Illinois, who was present as a visitor, and by one or two officers of the 17th Regiment Training Camp. The Special Assistant to the Secretary of War also spoke upon this occasion, having been detailed by the Secretary of War to represent him at the exercises in connection with the bestowal of the commissions.

Chapter VIII. Treatment of Negro Soldiers in Camp

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