African Americans Train at Fort Des Moines
Fort Des Moines
Despite the eagerness demonstrated by blacks to join the fight, black enlistments were limited by the federal government. Government officials feared the race issue would harm the war effort. A compromise was reached by allowing one officer candidate school to open to black college graduates. The announcement was made that 1,000 black officers would be trained. Fort Des Moines, Iowa, had been built in 1901 and in 1903 it opened with the arrival of the all-black 25th Infantry prisoner guard. The 11th Cavalry arrived in 1904. The 2nd Cavalry came in 1907, and the 6th Cavalry arrived in 1910.
WWI Officer Training in Des Moines
In May 1917 the first black officer candidates arrived at Fort Des Moines. There were 1,000 black college graduates and faculty from Howard, Tuskegee, Harvard and Yale universities. Two hundred fifty non-commissioned officers (sergeants) from the army’s four black standing units—the 9th and 10th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers” and the 24th and 25th Infantry—would also attend the camp. (The term Buffalo Soldiers was used to identify all-black military units that were formed after the Civil War in 1866.) The 1,250 candidates made up the 17th Provisional Training Regiment.
Off to Fight in France
In June 1918 the Fort Des Moines officers reunited at Hoboken, New Jersey, for transportation to France and combat against Germany. They were the 3rd Battalion, 92nd Division of the American Expeditionary Force. They would fight bravely across France and in the bloody Meuse-Argonne sector.
The final battle of World War I was at the historic French city of Metz where the Germans had built a great fortress. For the first time in U.S. military history, a black regiment under the command of black officers from Fort Des Moines led the attack in a major battle. Flanked by the American 56th Regiment and the French 8th Army, the 92nd fought to within 800 yards of the German fortress when the bugle was blown announcing the war’s end.
Heros of the War
In 1919 the returning Fort Des Moines officers were greeted by racial violence that flared across the nation. In spite of the racism and violence, they flourished and set the stage for a changing nation. The black officers of Fort Des Moines demonstrated their ability to perform and opened the door for all who came afterwards including legendary officers General “Chappie” James and General Colin Powell.
Famous black Iowans who graduated the Fort Des Moines camp and survived combat in France included noted journalists, civil rights activists and lawyers Charles Howard and James B. Morris, who would publish the Iowa Bystander newspaper from 1922-1972. James Wardlaw Mitchell’s Community Pharmacy anchored the historic Center Street business district in Des Moines for many years.