Firsthand Accounts from Black Soldiers in WWI

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Black and white photograph of a line of Black American WWI soldiers walking through the woods

Oral history provides rich support to the written records that fill the Museum and Memorial’s collection. In these interviews recorded in 1980, Columbus Morris, Robert Sweeney and Clay Ryan give voice to the African American experience in World War I. They reflect on their treatment by white American soldiers and French civilians; their feelings about their American citizenship and participation in the war; and their work before, during and after the war.

“I learned a little French myself and I could converse with the Madamoiselles quite well. I got along very nicely with them. And that was the only time that I was a full-fledged American citizen because they treated the Black soldiers just like they treated the white soldiers. No difference whatever.”

—Robert Sweeney



Columbus Morris was one of many African Americans drafted into labor battalions to load and unload ships bringing food, supplies and ammunition headed to the front. His position in a port city and hard work earned him frequent passes to relax in town. While he found the French people to be kind, he recollected that white American soldiers told the French women that African Americans have tails like dogs, which garnered him some attention from strangers asking about his tail. While Morris’ battalion was mixed, individual crews were strictly segregated, and he noted that, “you only mingled with your own race.”



A member of the all-Black 92nd Division, Clay Ryan was proud to wear the buffalo patch on his uniform. Known as Buffalo Soldiers – a name given to them during the Indian Wars in the late 1800s – the 92nd was white American-led and deployed to the front in August of 1918. Most of the discrimination that Ryan experienced came from non-commissioned officers and soldiers, but he wasn’t fazed by the attempts to intimidate him. When white soldiers started tacking up signs around town reading “No Black Soldiers,” Ryan said that the Black soldiers of the 92nd would simply shoot them down.



Robert Sweeney was working as a chauffeur when he read a recruitment notice for ambulance drivers. Having heard of poor conditions in the trenches, Sweeney seized the opportunity to land himself in a better place than risk being drafted. He transferred his skills and received basic medical training. Sweeney was also proud to be a Buffalo Soldier because they were, in his words, “made out of a very high-caliber type of individual,” and it was one of the first all-Black divisions to be activated.



At home, many white Americans did not want to see Black men wearing the uniform of the A.E.F. or participating in public events, especially in the South. Ryan was harassed almost immediately upon returning to the United States by a group of white men while he was waiting for his train. Sweeney, who served in a sanitary division, was discharged into a labor battalion that he had never been associated with but shows on his discharge papers. He would later remark about the incident.

“In other words, the American white man did everything to play you down and degrade you and not let you think you had been over there to fight to make the world safe for democracy. They wanted to put you in your place.”

—Robert Sweeney


By the end of the war, close to 2.3 million African Americans had served in the U.S. military. All three of the men interviewed believed that both their service and the American participation in the war was worthwhile. Ryan said that officers often gave speeches to reinforce their purpose: to make America safe for democracy. Each was happy to return home despite leaving a country that treated them equally for one that did not. They were proud of America’s participation, the victory in Europe and their part in it.


National Archives and Records Administration. “African Americans in the Military during World War I.” National Archives, August 6, 2020.

Schubert, Frank. “Buffalo Soldiers.” BlackPast, August 10, 2007.

US House of Representatives. “World War I And The Great Migration.” History, Art, and Archives. United States House of Representatives. Accessed May 20, 2022.

Yared, Ephrem. “92nd Infantry Division (1917–1919, 1942–1945).” BlackPast, March 9, 2016.