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Fort Des Moines's Role in Training Black Officers and Future Civil Rights Leaders

Washington Area Spark
Charles Hamilton Houston, who was trained as an officer at Fort Des Moines, went on to be a leader in the civil rights movement, working on court cases that preceded Brown v. Board of Education.

In May of 1917, the first class of African-American officers in U.S. military history were trained at Fort Des Moines.

Chad Williams, associate professor of African and African-American Studies at Brandeis University, says the fight to establish the class was an arduous one. Joel Spingarn, a white man and former NAACP leader, struck a deal with the General Leonard Wood: if he could find 200 acceptable candidates, they would create a training camp for them. In the end, 1200 men came to train, and 639 graduated.  

“This was an assemblage of the best of the race. Truly the cream of the crop from a wide range of different professions and backgrounds. This was indeed seen as an opportunity for these young men. They were very eager to serve, very eager to demonstrate their skills, their capacity for leadership, but also to do their civic duty as well. There was certainly an obligation these men felt to their race, to represent their race as best as they could, but also to represent their country as well,” says Williams.

With many recruits coming from historic black colleges and Ivy League universities on the coasts, the question “Why Iowa?” persists. Jack Lufkin, museum curator at Fort Des Moines, says the answer isn’t entirely clear.

“I’ve never seen a smoking gun letter wrote why they picked Fort Des Moines. Race relations in Iowa were considered pretty good. […] There was a sense too, it was an experiment, and if it failed, it would be more of a national news story in the east. And the fact that there were a lot of empty buildings in this square mile facility was a huge factor as well,” says Lufkin.

And though they were the only class of their kind trained at Fort Des Moines, or trained at all for World War I, their legacy didn’t end with them. Many went on to become leaders in the Civil Rights movement.

“African Americans would certainly point to the achievement of the Fort Des Moines camp, would make various efforts to historicize what had taken place, and I think that legacy certainly translated into the second World War and, ultimately, the elimination of racial segregation itself in the military with Truman’s executive order in 1948. So, many of the achievements that we can point to now in the military, especially when it comes to African American officers, you really have to point to Fort Des Moines’s camp as being the starting point,” says Williams

On this Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Williams and Lufkin about the first class of African-American officers trained at Fort Des Moines.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
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