Large group of soldiers standing around woman (© University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives)
YMCA worker Kathryn M. Johnson stands with African-American soldiers in France during World War I. (© University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives)

A group of African-American women serving overseas played vital roles in supporting their fellow U.S. Army soldiers during World War I and beyond.

Group of soldiers talking with woman (© University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives)
Addie W. Hunton greets African-American troops in France during the war. (© University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives)

According to the book Loyalty in Time of Trial: The African American Experience During World War I, 23 black women with the Young Men’s Christian Association aided the 200,000 African-American soldiers stationed in France.

Addie W. Hunton, Kathryn M. Johnson and Helen Curtis are the only women known to have been part of the group that helped these soldiers in France while the war raged on.

Back then, Jim Crow laws in America segregated blacks from whites in daily life, denying blacks their full rights as citizens. The U.S. military was bound by those laws, even overseas. Much later, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an order to desegregate the U.S. military, but it wasn’t fully integrated until 1954.

In France, the women managed African-American leave stations (where soldiers’ leave paperwork was processed) and canteens where soldiers ate and drank, says Krewasky Salter, an associate curator with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. He organized the museum’s exhibit “We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I.”

The women also ran hostess houses where soldiers socialized. The women welcomed the troops by giving them home-cooked meals, listening to them, organizing wholesome entertainment and maintaining the houses, Salter says.

“African-American women were great supports of the war because many of them had brothers, uncles, fathers and cousins who were drafted and/or joined the military,” Salter says. “There was a great outpouring of support from African-American women to support the African-American soldier population.”

Soldiers were stationed in France for months and years after World War I ended in late 1918, says Ryan Reft, a modern America historian in the Library of Congress’ manuscript division.

African-American women with the YMCA would have provided the same services because the noncombat troops — most of them African American — essentially worked the same jobs they had during the war, Reft said.

Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson returned to the U.S. after the war and co-authored Two Colored Women With the American Expeditionary Forces. They called their experience in France the “greatest opportunity for service that we have ever known.”

Faded photo of people seated and standing around table outside (© University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives)
African-American YMCA workers have tea with black soldiers seated in the background. (© University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives)

“The contact with a hundred thousand men, many of whom it was our privilege to help in a hundred different ways; men who were groping and discouraged; others who were crying loudly for help that they might acquire just the rudiments of an education, and so establish connection with the anxious hearts whom they had left behind; and still others who had a depth of understanding and a breadth of vision, that was at once a help and an inspiration,” the women wrote in 1920.