The Legacy of the WW 1 Ft. Des Moines Black Officers Training Camps
By Hal Chase
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site
African-Americans have struggled for their inalienable rights for the past 400 years of our nation’s history as the recent New York Times 1619 Project makes painfully clear. One of the most overlooked and neglected stories of their struggle was embodied by the 2,369 Black men who volunteered for training in the two Black Officers Training Camps at Ft. Des Moines, Iowa from June to November, 1917.
The first camp (BOTC) involved 1,250 candidates who competed for commissions as Captains, 1st and 2nd Lieutenants in the 92nd & 93rd Divisions on the Western Front in France. The second camp (MOTC) involved 119 candidates, most of whom were medical doctors as well as some 14 dentists and 1,000 “ hospital orderlies.”
The BOTC opened June 15,1917 and commissioned 639 officers on October 15, 1917. The MOTC began in July and commissioned 104 doctors/dentists as Captains in November. Black officers had served in the American Revolution through the Spanish-American War, but the World War 1 Ft. Des Moines Black Officers Training Camps were the first in our nation’s history sponsored by our federal government and the officer candidates perceived themselves as the vanguard of their race that would forge a new future.
Thus, their mentor, George H. Woodson (25th U.S. Infantry veteran, Howard Univ. Law School graduate and Des Moines attorney) declared:
“The call [came] in May, 1917 for 1,200 colored men to come [to Ft. Des Moines] and try to accomplish in three months what the rest of this country has had free and full opportunity to do in from one to three years…With less than 30 days’ notice the superb
youth, the very best brain, vigor, manhood of the Race gave up comfort, position, future promise and outlook in their various civil locations and from the North, South, East and West, started on their voluntary march to Fort Des Moines in answer to the call...
"With the firm belief that all these things must come from the granting of equal rights for every race and people beneath the sun and the spirit of justice and fair play for all, we sacredly and confidently place the glory of the country and honor of its flag in the
keeping of the first Colored men trained at Fort Des Moines and commissioned to fight in the Black Phalanx with the armies of America for the glory of our God, the honor of our country and the liberty and peace of the world.”
Woodson did not call the men of Ft. Des Moines “New Negroes” nor the vanguard of the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, but he had that vision. So did two candidates, one in the BOTC, Charles Hamilton Houston (Amherst College and Harvard Law) and the other in the MOTC, Dr. Louis T. Wright, (Clark College and Harvard MD). When he was elected NAACP Board Chair in 1934, it took him less than a year to persuade his family friend, Alpha Phi Alpha brother and fellow Harvard University post graduate to head the NAACP Legal Department. Together, they successfully pursued their plan to reverse the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by proving that its “separate but equal” doctrine had total separation but zero equality. Neither lived to May 17, 1954 or read the unanimous 9-0 decision written by U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren which concluded: "In the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place."
Louis T. Wright and Charles Hamilton Houston were only two of the 2,000 men who trained at Ft. Des Moines and merely two of the 200,000 Black men who served on the Western Front, yet they became national leaders of “the New Negro” who answered Dr. W. E. B. DuBois’ call in the January 1919 issue of The Crisis titled “Return Fighting” “to make America “safe for democracy.”
Dr. Hal Chase is professor of African American studies at Des Moines Area Community College. He formerly served on the Board of the Fort Des Moines Museum, and currently serves as the Treasurer for the Iowa World War I Centennial Committee.