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Teaching Guide: Exploring African American Soldiers in World War I

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, African American Soldiers in World War I, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. Based on the photographs in this set, how was life in France different from life in the US at the same time? Why do you think each of these photographs was taken? How is racism and segregation represented in the photograph of African American soldiers playing board games and the glass plate slide?
  2. What do the letters of James W. Alston tell us about the racism that African American soldiers faced in World War I as well as the patriotism they felt?
  3. Using the excerpt from his 1921 memoir, describe Horace Pippin’s experiences in the trenches in World War I. Compare his experiences to that of James W. Alston.
  4. Using the excerpt from Complete History of the Colored Soldiers in the World War, explain the battle actions of Henry Johnson. Why did it take until June 2015 for him to be awarded the US Congressional Medal of Honor?
  5. According to the proclamation, African American soldiers were unable to complete their assignment at Camp Wadsworth. Why do you think they did not complete their assignment? Why is the reason not mentioned in this document?
  6. How does the fictional account in Colored Soldiers perpetuate stereotypes about African Americans? How does the account reveal tensions facing African American World War I veterans?

Classroom activities

  1. Ask students to read the excerpt from Pippin’s 1921 memoir, the excerpt from Complete History of the Colored Soldiers in the World War, and the proclamation, then write a persuasive essay about whether racism or patriotism played the larger role in motivating African Americans to fight in World War I.
  2. Ask students to examine the photograph of African American soldiers with French children and then tell a fictional account of events that led to the photograph.
  3. Ask students to research and write a short essay on the only African American soldiers to earn US Congressional Medal of Honors for their service in World War I. The soldiers are Freddie Stowers and Henry Johnson. The students should use the excerpt from Complete History of the Colored Soldiers in the World War as a starting point for their research on Henry Johnson. More information on Freddie Stowers can be found in resources from the US Army and more on Henry Johnson can be found in resources from CBS News.

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