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African American Experience in the World Wars: Getting Started

Resources on African American soldiers and civilians in World War 1 and World War 2

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Background Information--World War 1

 First World War 

The First World War, also known as "The Great War," saw nations around the world in conflict with each other from 1914–1919. The United States did not officially enter the war until 1917 and did not get soldiers trained and in the fighting until 1918. At its conclusion, World War 1 had redrawn the map of the world and was concluded by treaties that contributed to conditions allowing for the rise of the German Third Reich in the 1930s and leading to the Second World War.

photo of African American soldier standing in front of wooden building






Member of the telephone and telegraph battalion at Camp Upton, Long Island (1917 or 1918). Image from the National Archives.

Background Information--World War II

 Second World War 

The world again went to war from 1939–1945. The United States entered the war after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941, and Adolph Hitler declared war on the United States. The war in Europe ended with German's surrender in May 1945 after Hitler's suicide and Japan's surrender after the United States dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that August.

African American WAC and male soldiers outside a gate in a brick wall

The first African American WACs (Women's Army Corps) to arrive in Europe were the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. After the battalion set up its facilities at Rouen, France, it held an open house, which was attended by hundreds of soldiers. Pvt. Ruth L. James of the battalion is on duty at the gate (May 26, 1945). Image from the National Archives.

Related Resources

Why collect background information?

Reading some general information about your topic before formulating your research question or beginning research gives you several benefits:

  • confirms what you already know
  • helps you identify gaps in your knowledge
  • introduces you to vocabulary used around your research topic that can help you state your research question and search for further information
  • provides context for your topic and may suggest various directions you might take your research

One suggestion to find background information is in encyclopedia databases such as Gale Ebooks and Oxford Reference Online.

Useful Search Terms

You may need to try different terms or subject headings depending on the database, catalog, or website you're searching and combine terms using Boolean search techniques as appropriate (see our tutorial below). Here are some suggestions for terms to try:

  • First World War
  • World War I
  • World War, 1914-1918
  • Second World War
  • World War II
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • African American soldiers--History--20th century
  • Black soldiers
  • African American troops
  • Civil rights--United States
  • African Americans--Social conditions--20th century
  • Race discrimination
  • Racism
  • Armed Forces--African Americans

How to combine search terms

How to find topics in ebooks

If the table of contents of an ebook isn't helpful in guiding you to the information you need for your research, you can try two other ways.

First, you can scroll to the end of the table of contents to check if the book has an index. If it does, use that to see if your topic is in the alphabetical list of things covered in the book. Be sure to try any alternate forms if you don't see what you're looking for at first. For example, if the heading "African American sailors" isn't in the list under A, maybe it's a subheading under under "Navy" in N or "United States Navy" in U.

Another method is to use the search with book feature that most ebook platforms have. For example, on Proquest Ebook Central, you can choose Read Online and then you'll be able to use the Search within book feature.

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