Its lineage dates back to the 1870s, when African-Americans created their own policing and military units, recognized by the city of Chicago, but not the state.
By World War I, however, the 8th Infantry Illinois National Guard, all-African-American — from highest rank of colonel to lowest rank of corporal — had been deployed in two foreign wars. It was the only all-African-American regiment in the entire U.S. Army called into service for that Great War. And it would be awarded more citations than any other American regiment that fought on Europe’s Western Front.
“This has been a suppressed story, and the narrative we get about WWI leaves out the story of this regiment,” said DuSable Museum of African American History Curator Harold “Hari” Jones. He recently guided a Black History Month tour of the exhibit, “Clearing a Path for Democracy: Citizen Soldiers of the Eighth Illinois National Guard.”
“Commanded by African-American officers and attached to several depleted French infantry divisions, this regiment earned the respect of all who saw them fight,” he said. “Their prowess on the battlefield is one of the best-kept secrets in American history.”
The new exhibit is Part 1 of the story of the “Fighting Eighth,” an introduction to the pioneering Chicagoans who organized and led the regiment, their battle to become citizen soldiers, and their accomplishments before deployment in Europe. Part 2, coming in April, further delves into the soldiers and officers’ distinguished battle record and their forgotten legacy.
“The story of the 8th Infantry reveals the political sophistication of Chicago’s African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Jones said of the regiment, which earned the nation’s first armory built for an African-American military unit in 1914. “The community stood as a sterling example of what could be done despite racial discrimination.”
The historic armory at 3533 S. Giles is now home to the Chicago Military Academy, the nation’s first public college-prep military school.
Jones, former assistant director and curator of the African American Civil War Freedom Foundation and Museum in Washington, D.C., and a foremost authority on the role of African-Americans in the military, was commissioned to tell this Chicago story.
The regiment began as the 9th Infantry Battalion. Under the leadership of pioneers John R. Marshall, J.C. Buckner, J. Bish and J. Jordan, it gained recognition from the state on May 5, 1890, and applied for entry into the National Guard. They were rebuffed by Gov. Joseph W. Fifer.
The black community then rallied to elect Buckner to the Illinois Legislature. Buckner got legislation passed to create a new guardsmen unit. And that unit, led by Major Buckner, Captain Marshall, Adolf Thomas, Charles L. Hunt and Robert R. Jackson, was admitted into the Guard by Gov. John Altgeld on Nov. 4, 1895.
It rapidly expanded, drawing enlistees statewide. On June 28, 1898, it was redesignated the 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and under the command of Col. John C. Marshall, was called up for service during the Spanish-American War of April-August 1898.
On Aug. 5, 1917, the regiment was drafted into WWI by proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson, under the command of Col. Franklin A. Denison. Redesignated as the 370th U.S. Infantry, it was attached to French infantry divisions during WWI (1914-1918), where it served with distinction and earned more commendations than any other American regiment. This, despite difficulties presented by language, military arms and equipment.
The regiment earned streamers for the Lorraine and Oise-Aisne Offensive. In three instances, every officer and enlisted man in its battalions earned decorations. In one of those instances, a battalion commanded by Capt. James C. Smith earned the French Croix de Guerre for conspicuous bravery and courage in battle. Another battalion, led by Lt. Col. Otis B. Duncan, was notably engaged in advanced pursuit of the retreating enemy when halted by the Armistice.
The 8th Infantry Regiment remained intact until deployed in WWII (1939-1945), when its battalions would be re-assigned, the regiment disbanded.
“African-Americans have overcome many obstacles within the military. The first obstacle was actually being able to pick up arms and fight. The second was to have black leadership within their all-black units. The third struggle was integration into the military to where African-Americans fought alongside white soldiers,” Illinois National Guard Command Historian Adriana Schroeder noted.
Jones conveys the regiment’s history through the soldiers’ own voices, official military records, photographs, maps and a time-line video, along with such artifacts as a 1917 combat helmet and enlisted uniform, an M1903 Rifle, and a Mexican Border Service Medal.
“Given the race barriers in their own country, the soldiers viewed their efforts as … ‘clearing a path for democracy at home,'” he said. “If you were not there in the making of the history, you do not get a quote in our exhibit.”