The United States of America declared war on Germany in April 1917 but didn't send troops to Europe until the early fall of 1917. Part of the delay was because there weren't enough American men trained to be soldiers. Many African American men enlisted in the military, 370,000 in all, but three fourths of them were relegated to labor battalions. Those who did fight were segregated into separate units, and most of the 100,000 who saw combat fought under French officers. Only 1,400 African American men were allowed to become officers in the military even though the bravery and leadership of American black soldiers were well documented.

World War I galvanized the black community in their effort to make America truly democratic by ensuring full citizenship for all its people. Black soldiers, who continued to serve in segregated units, were involved in protest against racial injustice on the home front and abroad.

Blacks and whites in the newly-formed NAACP and other organizations led the onslaught against discrimination and segregation in the United States. Numerous NAACP files labeled "Soldier Troubles" document the efforts made to prevent mistreatment of African Americans in the military. The NAACP also pursued voting rights and worked to dismantle various forms of segregation through the courts. Painstakingly, one case at a time, one law at a time, they confronted the racial inequities in the legal system. The Library's extensive civil rights collections document the efforts during this period on the part of blacks and whites to erase the legacy of slavery.

African American artists, actors, and writers led the battle against intellectual and artistic bias. Between the wars, and even during the deprivations of the Great Depression, there was a great crescendo of African American artistic statement in the period known as the "Harlem Renaissance." Paintings, drawings, classical music, jazz, blues, poetry, novels, plays, and dance abounded during this era and won world acclaim. But artistic and intellectual achievement did not win for blacks political, economic, and educational parity with whites. Racism remained a powerful force in American life.

More than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor. In response to protests of discrimination and mistreatment from the black community, several hundred African American men received officers' training in Des Moines, Iowa. By October 1917, over six hundred African Americans were commissioned as captains and first and second lieutenants.