World War I: Black Officers’ Training

The World War I black officer's training camp at Iowa’s Fort Des Moines is featured. This program aired in 2003.


Hello, I'm Morgan Halgren. Thanks for joining us for another edition of Living in Iowa.

In our 16 decades as a state, young Iowans have always answered our nation's call to arms. This week "Living in Iowa" wants to revisit some of the stories we've done that show an Iowa connection to America's wars of the 20th century. We'll begin with a chapter about World War I that was probably left out of your grade school textbook. But thanks to a book called Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, the record has been set straight about the contributions of a brave group of unsung heroes.

William: Most of these buildings are no longer in use, and many have become dilapidated and damaged. But if you were here back in 1917, you would have run into a large number of black officer candidates here at the 117th Provisional Training Facility at Fort Des Moines. You might even have run into my grandfather.

Morgan: J.B. Morris was among the 1,250 black men who came to Fort Des Moines for their World War I officers' training.

William: This was the first time in American history that a substantial number of black men would be commissioned as United States army officers. You had men with bachelors and masters degrees and even Ph.D.s who came out here to volunteer to fight for their country.

Morgan: Des Moines attorney and military historian, William Morris, says he's proud to have had the opportunity to write the chapter on the military history of black Iowans.

William: I'm honored to have it. And it's one of those things that come along, basically, once in a lifetime. I've always been interested in American military history since I was in grade school. Really, I basically grew up hearing those stories.

Morgan: This war story begins with the decision to set up the training camp, a decision that was not easy for the Wilson administration.

William: Woodrow Wilson was a Southerner and a segregationist. And it was quite a political struggle to even consider the establishment of a training camp for black officers. The fear that black men armed and taught military tactics could perhaps become an insurrectionist force was very real during the early part of the century, particularly in the South.

Morgan: But official trepidation soon gave way to stark reality.

William: A war requires manpower. It didn't really make that much difference whether they were white, black, red, brown, or yellow. We need somebody.

Morgan: The “somebodies” who came to Fort Des Moines represented the largest assembly of black college graduates in American history. The location was chosen almost by default.

William: Because no other state in the union would accept such a facility. You have to understand that this was very controversial at the time.

Morgan: Although more than half of the candidates completed their training, commissions were slow in coming, so slow that many quit in disgust.

William: I think it was felt this would be their last chance to perhaps discredit these men or at least reduce their numbers so that perhaps they would have a reduced impact upon the war and inevitably upon American thinking at the time, whether a black man could be an officer and a gentleman.

Morgan: Morris's grandfather was one of the 638 black officers who received their commissions on October 14, 1917.

William: My grandfather and many men of his generation knew that they could improve the opportunities for their children and their grandchildren. They would have to show by their sacrifice and their service that they were worthy to be Americans, that they were worthy to receive the right to vote, and to be received in public accommodations.

Morgan: It would be quite sometime before their efforts would be fully appreciated.

William: He was proud of his sacrifice. but at the same time he was disappointed that that didn't count for much when he came back in 1919.

Morgan: The long-range impact, though, would reach far beyond the military arena.

William: Without the sacrifice of these men here in Des Moines in 1917 and their duty overseas, there would not have been the groundwork laid for generals like Colin Powell who walked up the backs of the sacrifices of these men before him, and he readily admits that.

Morgan: The chapter written by William Morris finally gave them the credit they were due.

Living in Iowa

Iowa PBS, 2007


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