During World War I, the Colored Officers Training Camp—a segregated site at Fort Des Moines in Iowa—opened in June 1917 with 1,250 candidates. Among those who sought an officer’s commission was a brilliant young man from Washington, DC, named Charles Hamilton Houston.
Charles Hamilton Houston
Charles Hamilton Houston was born in 1895 to William Houston, an attorney, and Mary Hamilton Houston, a talented seamstress whose clients included US senators and other high-ranking federal officials.
When Houston was 12 years old, his parents enrolled him in M Street High School, the nation’s first Black high school. M Street challenged its pupils, offering a classical education to prepare them for a life of the mind rather than an industrial education that many felt prepared Black students for a life of labor. Houston did well enough to earn a partial scholarship to Amherst College, Massachusetts, where he truly excelled in the classroom. In 1915, he graduated from Amherst, the only African American in his class, and one of six valedictorians.
Houston returned to Washington, DC, and was teaching English and Negro Literature at Howard University when the federal government declared war on Germany and instituted the draft.
Uninterested in being, as he said, “herded into the army”, Houston enlisted, and with the aid of his father, succeeded in landing a spot among the first group of candidates at the Colored Officers Training Camp at Fort Des Moines.
Officer training was grueling, made even more insufferable by the racist attitudes and behavior of the white instructors, including the camp commander, Colonel Charles Ballou, who insisted that the Black soldiers under his direction lacked “the mental potential and higher qualities of character essential to command and leadership”.
The colonel sang a familiar song, one that irritated Houston tremendously, but he didn’t let that distract or deter him. He trained hard, received a commission as a first lieutenant, and was assigned to an infantry training unit. Houston was one of 639 Black men to earn an officer’s commission at the camp.
The Colored Officers Training Camp closed in October 1917, ending a bold and unique experiment in American military history. But First Lieutenant Charles Hamilton Houston’s story was just beginning. The prejudice that he endured during officer training was enough to last a lifetime, but it was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Houston would go through over the next two years as judge advocate at Camp Meade in Maryland, at Camp Dix in New Jersey, and at several camps in France.
Reflecting on his time in the army, Houston wrote: “The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
And he did commit his life to the pursuit of racial justice through the law, first as the dean of Howard University Law School, and then as the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense Committee, where he led the team that devised and implemented the strategy that would overturn the “separate but equal” precedent established by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
New York’s 15th National Guard Regiment
Houston and his fellow Black officers were among the most gifted and accomplished young Black men in America. Indeed, more than 40% of them had graduated from college. Unfortunately, their talent was wasted in the army. Military officials refused to promote any of them above the rank of captain. They had far more faith in the incompetent, racist white officers that they had initially selected to command the 92nd Division than they had in the elite cadre of Black men they had just entrusted with new authority.
As America geared up for the Great War, Black Harlemites lobbied the governor of New York to allow African Americans to join the state’s National Guard. The governor eventually relented, paving the way for the formation of New York’s 15th National Guard Regiment, headquartered in Harlem, in 1916.
To lead the Black troops, the governor tapped William Hayward. In a previous life, Hayward had served as a colonel in the Nebraska National Guard. Hayward hired both white and Black officers, the former to please the governor and the later to please Harlem.
He also reached out to James Reese Europe, an accomplished and classically trained African American musician and ragtime performer, to lead the regimental band. He hoped that a stellar band would boost enthusiasm for the new unit and attract more recruits.
African American Women
Enthusiasm for the regiment extended to African American women. Although barred from serving, Black women recognized the potential and possibility for the military service of Black men to advance the broader African American struggle for basic citizenship rights through demonstrations of manhood. At the same time, they understood the challenges that Black soldiers faced in a segregated military, including a lack of vital material and emotional support.
All troops, regardless of their race, faced challenges when it came to having everything they needed to survive and thrive at home and abroad. White soldiers, however, had better-resourced national service organizations such as the Red Cross and the YWCA to help them.
African American women joined these organizations and did what they could to direct resources their way, but they also organized on their own, often through the auspices of the National Association of Colored Women and other Black women’s clubs. In addition, they established local groups. In New York, they created the Women’s Auxiliary of the New York 15th National Guard to provide direct support to Harlem’s soldiers.
Common Questions about Charles Hamilton Houston and the Colored Officers Training Camp
Charles Hamilton Houston was teaching English and Negro Literature at Howard University when the federal government declared war on Germany.
Officer training was grueling, made even more insufferable by the racist attitudes and behavior of the white instructors, including the camp commander, Colonel Charles Ballou.
African American women organized on their own, often through the auspices of the National Association of Colored Women and other Black women’s clubs.