Awards and Distinctions
2011 Organization of American Historians Liberty Legacy Foundation Award for the best book by a historian on the civil rights struggle from the beginnings of the nation to the present
2011 Society for Military History Distinguished Book Award for United States Military History
2011 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title
On April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson thrust the United States into World War I by declaring, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” For the 380,000 African American soldiers who fought and labored in the global conflict, these words carried life or death meaning. Relating stories bridging the war and postwar years, spanning the streets of Chicago and the streets of Harlem, from the battlefields of the American South to the battlefields of the Western Front, Chad L. Williams reveals the central role of African American soldiers in World War I and how they, along with race activists and ordinary citizens alike, committed to fighting for democracy at home and beyond.
Using a diverse range of sources, Williams connects the history of African American soldiers and veterans to issues such as the obligations of citizenship, combat and labor, diaspora and internationalism, homecoming and racial violence, “New Negro” militancy, and African American historical memories of the war. Democracy may have been distant from the everyday lives of African Americans at the dawn of the war, but it nevertheless remained a powerful ideal that sparked the hopes of black people throughout the country for societal change. Torchbearers of Democracy reclaims the legacy of black soldiers and establishes the World War I era as a defining moment in the history of African Americans and peoples of African descent more broadly.
“In this important, sophisticated, and original study, Chad Williams establishes the centrality of black soldiers and veterans to the struggles against racial inequality during World War I as no other book does. Torchbearers of Democracy sensitively examines the fraught connections between citizenship, obligation, and race while highlighting the diversity of black soldiers experiences in fighting on behalf of a democracy that denied them rights and dignity. This is a major contribution to political, military, and civil rights history.”
–Eric Arnesen, George Washington University
“Indispensable. . . . Bits and pieces of this story may be found in a variety of other histories, but none to date have put the entire story together with the comprehensiveness, care, research, and insight of this hefty work. Highly recommended.”
“Truly pathbreaking. . . . The most complete portrait to date of the war’s resounding impact on both personal lives and the overall civil rights movement.”
–Jennifer D. Keene, Journal of Military History
“Torchbearers of Democracy follows African American soldiers from Paris, Texas, to Paris, France, and shows how black soldiers struggled all along that meridian, finding in each place a new set of obstacles to their full exercise of freedom. . . . Rigorous, ambitious, and impressively thorough. . . . Brings a fresh, broad, and modern interpretation of the war’s influence on African Americans’ social and political culture.
–Sarah-Jane Mathieu, American Quarterly
“Torchbearers of Democracy reclaims the legacy of black soldiers and establishes the World War I era as a defining moment in the history of African Americans and peoples of African descent more broadly. . . . This book is an important addition to a W.W.I library.”
–The Lone Star Book Review