In this talk Robert Hill focuses on the experiences these men and women faced, how they persevered, and the impact their actions had on and off the field. Particular attention is given to the 351st Field Artillery Regiment—which comprised mostly Pittsburghers—and the productive lives some members built after the war.
When President Woodrow Wilson issued a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917, he stood before Congress and stated “The world must be made safe for democracy.” At the same time, members of the Black community were fighting for equal rights on American soil. For many of them, WWI became a test of America’s commitment to the belief that all men were indeed created equal.
Battles for racial justice during WWI helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement. One example is the 351st Field Artillery Regiment. Black men, mostly from Pittsburgh, faced unequal treatment and reduced opportunities while stationed at Fort Lee, VA. Blacks who had high school and even college education were not allowed to become officers but were assigned to support and service duties. To protest their treatment, these men began a secret letter-writing campaign in October 1917 describing the Army’s restrictive and discriminatory policies. Black leaders like Robert L. Vann, publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Rev. Shelton Hale Bishop, rector of the city’s Holy Cross Episcopal Church, received letters and took action. They protested until their lobbying brought change. On November 15, 1917, 15 Black soldiers, under the command of a White colonel, were transferred to Camp Meade, MD for artillery training and the 351st was born.
Most of the unit deployed for France in June 1918 and saw action on the Western Front in the final months of the war. The 351st returned to Pittsburgh, March 7, 1919. People of all races, colors, classes, and creeds lined the city’s streets for a parade to welcome them home.
Dr. Robert Hill served as the Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh from 1999 through 2013. He created Pitt’s popular K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program and helped to develop the award-winning exhibition “Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries” at the Senator John Heinz History Center.