African American History: Honored as Heroes

Essential Questions

How did racial relations at home affect the war effort in Europe during World War I? How did the war effort in Europe affect racial relations at home?



In this lesson, students watch a clip from the episode Our Colored Heroes in which they learn about Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson, two African-American World War I heroes. They analyze period propaganda posters to understand how racial relations were shifting during World War I, and then write letters from the perspective of African-American soldiers or their family members.


Related Episode: Our Colored Heroes Investigation

In this episode, History Detective Tukufu Zuberi is the one asking for help. Zuberi comes to host Elyse Luray for help learning about the origins of an amazing World War I poster he owns. The poster shows an African-American soldier bravely fighting German soldiers. Zuberi thinks it was a recruitment poster for the United States Army, but Luray isn’t so sure. The two of them investigate who made the poster and why.


Suggested Grade Level

This lesson is written for grades 9-12, but could be adapted for use in grades 6-8. Suggestion for adaptation: create a template for the letter with sentence starters that guide the students in organizing their thoughts, provide students with age-appropriate background on World War I and race relations in America before beginning the lesson.


Suggested Unit of Study

This lesson is appropriate for American History units on World War I and thematic units covering Civil Rights and race in the United States. The lesson is also appropriate for a European or World History unit on World War I.





Our Colored Heroes

Tukufu comes to Elyse for help learning about the origins of an amazing WWI poster he owns

In this episode excerpt, New York Senator Chuck Schumer relates how Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson earned a French medal of honor for their heroic actions in World War I but were never honored by the United States government. Chad Williams, a history professor, explains that he thinks the “Our Colored Heroes” poster is the result of growing racial pride due to African American participation in the war.



To view World War I Propaganda Posters slideshow, click here.

To print slideshow, click here.



Letter Planner 


Estimated Time Required

1-2 class periods



World War I began in 1914 in Europe as the result of a complex series of alliances and treaties. The United States joined the war in 1917. At home, racial tensions were still high. Though Reconstruction was over, the country was still segregated. And the United States Military was discriminatory in its deployment of Black soldiers. No African Americans were allowed to serve in the Marine Corps and the first Black soldiers deployed were limited to non-combat roles. Later, those African American soldiers who were in combat roles were transferred to the French Army. But African-Americans saw service in the military as a way to advance their civil rights and fought with bravery and dedication.


Discussion Questions

Have students watch the video Our Colored Heroes while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion: 

  • Who were Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts?
  • How did African Americans see their role in World War I? How did the Armed Forces treat African American Soldiers?
  • What did Johnson and Needham do to earn the Croix de Guerre?
  • According to Schumer, why didn’t Johnson an American Medal of Honor? Why should he have?
  • How did the American Army feel about recruiting African Americans?
  • What purpose does Chad Williams think Zuberi’s poster served?
  • How would you feel if you were an African American during World War I?


After showing the clip Our Colored Heroes from the History Detectives episode Our Colored Heroes, lead a discussion about propaganda posters using the images from World War I Propaganda Posters. Review with students the definition of “propaganda” (information, usually biased or misleading, used to convince people to believe a particular political idea or point of view) and its various techniques, including appealing to people’s fear, joining the bandwagon, and use of glittering generalizations. (See Propaganda Critic for further information on propaganda techniques.)

The images include:

  • Image 1: Poster showing “The Dawn of Hope,” with Abraham Lincoln, an African American soldier, and a farmer and his grandson. States, “Your brethren are now fighting . . . in hopes for equality and justice for the black man.”
  • Image 2: “Colored Man is No Slacker,” showing an African American soldier about to march off with his regiment, saying goodbye to his wife
  • Image 3: “Duty Calls,” nearly identical poster to Image 3, but showing a white couple

Ask students the following questions:

  • What do you notice first about this poster?
  • What is the mood of the poster? Is there just one? (hopeful, bitter, resigned, courageous, happy, proud, etc.)
  • What is the goal of this poster?
  • How are images 2 and 3 different?
  • Based on this posters, what are the goals of propaganda posters in general?

After students have discussed the images, they will write letters from the perspective of an African American during World War I. They may choose to be a soldier writing home to his family or a family member writing to a soldier in Europe. Students can use the Letter Planner to develop their ideas. Refer students to Total War and Slaughter from PBS’s website for “the Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century” for general background on soldiers’ experiences in World War I. Please see the Resources section of this lesson plan for further suggestions on web sites that students could use as starting points for further background.


After students have finished writing, allow them to either present their letters to the class or have them share in small groups. Lead a discussion about how their letters capture the tensions of the time.

  • How did racial relations in the United States affect African American soldiers in World War I?
  • How did the actions of African American soldiers in the war affect racial relations at home?
  • Henry Johnson still has not received the American Medal of Honor. Why do you think that is?

Going Further

 Have students research the role of African Americans during World War II. Lead a discussion into how their role has changed since World War I. (See Pictures of African Americans During World War II and African Americans During World War II. How have the roles played by African Americans in wartime changed since World War I? How are they still the same?


More on History Detectives

Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to enhance the teaching of this lesson in your classroom. 








National History Standards

Historical Thinking

1. Chronological Thinking: The student thinks chronologically

2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources

3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation

4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research


US History Content Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

  • Standard 2: The changing role of the United States in world affairs through World War I


Common Core State Standards

Grades 6-8

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.


Grades 9-10

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.


Grades 11-12

CCS.ELA-literacy.RH.11-12.1Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.



Grades 6-12

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-12.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.