Vanguard: Black Veterans and Civil Rights after World War I


Mencoff Hall 205

Abstract: Nearly 400,000 Black men were drafted into National Army during World War I, where they toiled in segregated units and received little formal training. Leveraging novel variation from the WWI draft lottery and millions of digitized military and NAACP records, we document the pioneering role these men would play in the early civil rights movement. Relative to observably similar individuals from the same draft board, Black men randomly inducted into the Army were significantly more likely to join the nascent NAACP and to become prominent community leaders during the New Negro era. We find little evidence that military service improved Black socioeconomic status. Notably, increased activism was driven by soldiers who experienced the most discriminatory treatment while serving their country, as measured across multiple dimensions discussed in War Department reports. Together, our findings corroborate historical accounts of how experiences of institutional racism in the military catalyzed postwar activism at the origins of the civil rights movement.

Bio: Desmond Ang is an applied economist and assistant professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His research examines the causes and consequences of racial discrimination and has been published in leading journals including American Economic Review, American Political Science Review, and Quarterly Journal of Economics. Desmond received his PhD in economics from University of California, San Diego and his B.A. from Dartmouth College.