By Marvin-Alonzo Greer
“Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?” read a sign after the East St. Louis race riot.
Despite the increasing racial terror of the early 20th century, nearly 400,000 African Americans enlisted in the Army during WWI. Among the enlistees was St. Louisan Calvin Hyde.Like many black migrants to St. Louis, Hyde was born into a farming family but sought a better life. From his birthplace in Noxubee County, Miss., Hyde joined the exodus of thousands of African Americans who fled the South during the Great Migration. Fueled by increased manufacturing and war production, black migration to cities such as St. Louis and East St. Louis grew, enabling African Americans to escape work on Southern plantations.
Black migrants such as Hyde brought with them Southern traditions, art, music, and culture. In the post-war years, the cultural explosions and social activism would lead to the “New Negro” Movement, Harlem Renaissance, and the Jazz age. And as men like Hyde traveled to Europe, they brought not only their fighting spirit but black American culture.
When Hyde arrived in St. Louis about 1910, he found employment at a saloon and worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.When America entered the war in 1917, Hyde was drafted and completed his training at Camp Funston, Kan. (now Ft. Riley). He was assigned to the 93rd Infantry Division and served in the famed 369th Infantry Regiment, later dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters.
The Army relegated most black soldiers to labor battalions; however, there were two all-black combat units, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions. Hyde and the 93rd Division were forced to fight under French command, because white Americans didn’t think blacks would be good soldiers.
The men proudly donned their American doughboy uniforms, with helmets, rifles, and equipment supplied by the French army.
The 92nd and 93rd Divisions became renowned throughout Europe not only for their fighting ability but for their military bands, which introduced jazz music to European audiences for the first time.
One black officers who served in the 92nd Division wrote, “Paris is taken away with [jazz] and our style of dancing.” He continued, “The girls come after the boys in taxis and beg them to go to the dance. Colored boys are all the go.”
The most famous jazz band of the Great War was in Calvin Hyde’s own unit, the 369th Infantry, led by band leader James Reese Europe.
Hyde and the Hellfighters spent more than six months in frontline trenches – more time in continuous combat than any other American unit – never losing ground to the enemy or having a man taken prisoner. They suffered 1,500 casualties, including Hyde.
On July 15, 1918, Calvin Hyde, 28, died of wounds received in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. He was the first black St. Louisan to be killed in the war. He was laid to rest in Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.
When the American Legion was founded in St. Louis in 1919, Calvin Hyde Post 194 of the American Legion was named in his honor.
Today the military is no longer segregated, but the 93rd Division patch is the French Adrian helmet paying homage to the black soldiers who served under the French flag during WWI.
By the end of the Great War, more than 100 men from Hyde’s unit received awards for bravery from the U.S. and French governments. One of those men is Henry Johnson, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.
Visit the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum downtown to discover more stories of everyday St. Louisans who make up our diverse community and enhance our history and culture.
– Marvin-Alonzo Greer is the Education and Visitor Experience Lead at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum.