Paving the Way for Equality


As we wrap up the 50th anniversary of honoring Black History Month, there was an article that caught my attention last fall.  A graveside commemorative ceremony took place honoring the only Rhode Island African-American soldier killed in action during World War I one hundred years ago.

When the United States declared war against Germany in the spring of 1917, it provided an opportunity to change our segregated society by allowing African-Americans to display their loyalty and patriotism to their country by joining the war effort.  Unfortunately, the United States did not allow most African-American soldiers to serve in combat units but used them as laborers.

Private Arthur Burton was one of the few who experienced the theater of war.  He enlisted (not drafted) in the Connecticut Army National Guard at the age of 20 in September 1917 and departed to Europe in March 1918 from Newport News, Virginia.

As part of the 372nd Infantry Regiment, Pvt. Burton and the rest of this black unit were assigned to the French 157th Red Hand Division.  While American military commanders did not allow black and white soldiers to fight side by side, the French did not display such segregation.  During the campaign, the French recognized both the 369th and 372nd Black Infantry Regiments for their perseverance and acts of valor.  They publically placed them in high regard and nicknamed them “Men of Bronze”, while their German opponents referred to them as the “Harlem Hellfighters”.

While Pvt. Burton made the ultimate sacrifice, killed in battle on September 28, 1918, his unit and others paved the way to improve equality.  By the time World War I ended, in November 1918, African-Americans held various highly regarded positions in the Army.