During the period of World War I, while society struggled with issues of racial prejudice, many black men were drafted or volunteered for military service and thus demonstrated a willingness to fight on behalf of their white neighbors, oftentimes clinging to the hope that their service in the military might someday bring them equality on the home front. One such aspiring youth, who came of age on the east side of Jefferson City, Mo., went on to develop proficiency as a soldier among a unique group of men that would later distinguish themselves in the trenches of France.
“I remember hearing years ago from one of our local World War I veterans that Tony Jenkins loved to play baseball and was quite talented at the game,” said Saundra Allen, an auxiliary member of the Tony Jenkins American Legion Post 231 in Jefferson City.
Much of Jenkins’ early years remains shrouded in mystery because, Allen noted, his family has either passed away or moved from the Mid-Missouri area, leaving behind little information with which to piece together his brief—yet interesting—life. Born in Jefferson City on October 10, 1894, the 1910 U.S. Census indicates Jenkins lived with his older brother and two sisters when he was 15 years old; however, his WWI service card accessed through the Missouri State Archives shows him living in Richland, Mo., when he was inducted into the U.S. Army in Fayette, Mo., on October 29, 1917.
In the book “Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War,” the author notes that during World War I, “about 367,710 of the nearly 400,000 black soldiers that served entered the service because of the Selective Draft Law,” as was the case with young Jenkins.
Black recruits were often separated into one of two combat divisions—the 92nd or the 93rd Division. Jenkins was attached to Company G, 365th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division, which was formed at Camp Dodge, Iowa. In December of 1917, he was transferred to Camp Funston, Kan., where he remained until departing for France in late March 1918 as a member of Company G, 369th Infantry Regiment, which was formed from the 15th New York National Guard Infantry Regiment.
“We must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans,” wrote General John J. Pershing about black troops on August 7, 1918, in a secret communication to French troops stationed with the American Army.
Early in the war, Pershing made the decision to loan the four regiments of the 93rd Division to the French. Despite the institutional racism they faced within the larger military structure, the division would go on to fight boldly on behalf of those who did not recognize their value as citizens and soldiers.
Jenkins’ regiment, the 369th, was the first to arrive in France and, following training with the French forces, was integrated into France’s Fourth Army and soon began to prove their mettle in combat operations, all the while wearing French uniforms and using French weapons.
In an article by Jami Bryan appearing in “On Point,” an Army Historical Foundation publication, she notes that although the division experienced some early problems related to the language barrier, their French counterparts treated the American soldiers as equals.
The division’s list of military operations included several major battles along the Western Front; however, after bitter fighting during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the division earned the title of “Hellfighters” by their German foes (the title later morphed into “Harlem Hellfighters” in recognition of the location from which many of the division’s recruits originated).
On September 28, 1918, during the carnage of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, a 23-year-old Tony Jenkins lost his life from wounds received in combat. (The day following Jenkins’ death, fellow Jefferson City resident Roscoe Enloe was killed in action).
News of the soldier’s death was shared in the December 16, 1918 edition of the Jefferson City Post-Tribune, with the young “Harlem Hellfighter” being laid to rest as an American soldier alongside hundreds of his fellow veterans in the Jefferson City National Cemetery.
Years later, the Tony Jenkins Lodge No. 432 of the Elks was formed to honor the late veteran (with the “e” removed from his first name) and on February 1, 1934, at the old Community Building, 901 E. Dunklin Street, the Tony Jenkins American Legion Post was formed with a charter group of 15 local veterans. Since that time, it has remained a predominantly black post.
In a confidential cablegram sent to Washington, D.C., General Pershing lauds the black soldiers of the 92nd and 93rd Divisions, beaming with pride over their “comparatively high degree of training and efficiency,” followed by remarks that would indicate their sacrifices did not go unrecognized.
“(The) only regret expressed by colored troops is that they are not given more dangerous work to do,” wrote Pershing, adding, “I cannot commend too highly the spirit shown among the colored combat troops, who exhibit fine capacity for quick training and eagerness for the most dangerous work.”
Nearly 30 years after Jenkins’ burial, President Truman desegregated the military through Executive Order 9981, with the sacrifice and performance of the 93rd Division helping inspire major changes in highest levels of U.S. leadership and delivering the beginning stages of equality for which the soldiers of the division so valiantly fought.
Jeremy P. Ämick is a military historian and author of “Cole County, Missouri at War: 1861-1975.”
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.