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By Sgt. Christopher Garibay, 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
The Illinois National Guard, the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, the 8th Infantry Association, the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville, the World War I Centennial Commission, Friends of the Victory Monument Memorial and several dignitaries took part in the rededication of the Victory Monument in Chicago on July 5 honoring the World War I service of the Illinois National Guard’s storied all African-American 8th Infantry Regiment.
The monument was erected in 1927 to honor Soldiers in the Illinois National Guard’s 8th Infantry Regiment. The 8th Infantry was re-designated as the 370th Infantry Regiment during World War I, where they fought under French control because of institutional racism in the U.S. Army at that time. Upon return to Illinois, it became the 8th Infantry once again. The ceremony was a way to raise awareness of the actions of one of the most valiant African-American units to take part in the “Great War.” The monument recently underwent a $62,000 renovation. Renovation funds came from a grant from the World War I Centennial Commission 100 Cities Project and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events’ budget for conservation and maintenance.
“This is the only monument of its kind in the United States and it is the untold story of World War I black soldiers who fought valiantly under French command and control,” said former ambassador and U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun. “This is the only memorial that represents their work and their sacrifice, and as a descendant of a member of the 370th, it means a lot for me and the community.”
The monument is nestled along Martin Luther King Drive in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. It was in this community more than 100 years ago that young black men heeded the call of their nation to fight in Europe, despite facing segregation and racism back at home. Still, undeterred, a total of 400,000 black troops across the country would fight in the Great War of which 42,000 would see combat. The 8th Illinois, or the “Black Devils” as they would come to be known by the German Army, would see 21 men receive the Distinguished Service Cross – the nation’s second highest award for valor, and 68 Croix de Guerre - France’s award for units and individuals from foreign militaries for actions of valor. During the war, 137 men would die in France, and their names are enshrined on the memorial for all to see.
“This is very important because it illuminates the contributions of black soldiers in World War I and Chicago in general. This is really a unique monument,” said Lt. Col. (ret.) Jennifer Pritzker, founder of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library and a primary leader of the nationwide World War I Centennial Commission. “I don’t think another monument exists in the country that celebrates the fighting of black soldiers during World War I.”
Pritzker said it was important for the country to celebrate the heroes of World War I and has devoted herself to founding a memorial in Washington, D.C. She said while that was important to acknowledge all who served to fight that war, the Victory Monument was especially significant because it exists in Chicago and represents the local community.
Col. (ret.) Eugene F. Scott of Chicago, a member of Friends of the Victory Monument Memorial, and an avid supporter of the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville, said the rededication event took a lot of work from all parties and appreciated the support of the Illinois National Guard.
“Thank God we made the connections with the National Guard. You could see where the resources to put the event together came from,” said Scott. “Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to put this program together like I did. In the future, they will always be a part of this event.”
Scott said the community needs to embrace the unit, the Soldiers and monument as a testament to the community’s commitment in WWI.
“That was a bad time for black Americans,” said Scott. “There weren’t that many black combat units, so when you have one in the community, you have to pay attention to it.”
During his remarks, Scott emphasized the importance of the legacy the 8th Illinois, having roots in today’s 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment in the Illinois Army National Guard, a battalion once led by Col. Nick Johnson, brigade commander of the 65th Troop Command.
“It was an honor to command the 1st of the 178th because of the legacy that was developed and gained by the 8th, and for my time in the unit and as the commander, it couldn’t have meant more” said Johnson. “[The 8th Infantry] definitely was a great reflection of the community here. You had people fighting to get in the unit and fighting to deploy.”
Johnson said being a part of the 8th Infantry Regiment was important to people of the community because it meant something more and the monument was a testament to their sacrifice.
Scott said it was important for Johnson to speak at the memorial to demonstrate the strides black Americans had made in the military and the commitment they had shown their country based on their bravery and sacrifice for freedom.
Scott says he intends on making sure the memorial is remembered every year to bring attention to the community on their investment to the country’s past, present and in the future.
The 100 Cities/100 Memorials program, sponsored by the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission and the Pritzker Military Museum and Library with support from the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, awarded $200,000 in matching grants and designated 100 memorials in 100 cities as official “WWI Centennial Memorials”.