Maryland's black troops from the Great War paraded home in style

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November 16, 2008|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

Some 400,000 African-Americans answered their country's call during World War I and served in the Army's segregated units.

And even though the armistice ending the Great War was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, it was some time before troops returned home.

It wasn't until March 25, 1919, that the members of Baltimore's First Separate Company (Monumental City Guards), an all-volunteer African-American unit that was established in 1879, were welcomed home to their native city.

Crowds lined city streets that day to watch the First Separate Company in a parade that had formed at Sharp Street Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church at Dolphin and Etting streets, and ended later in the afternoon at the Fifth Regiment Armory.

They were joined by units of African-American Red Cross auxiliaries, Boy Scouts, lodge members and several ragtime bands.

The parade was led by Drum Major Landin, a strapping six-footer and bandleader of an Army jazz band, who, a year earlier, had led the 368th, an African-American infantry unit that was reviewed by President Woodrow Wilson as it marched past the president's reviewing stand at Mount Royal Avenue and St. Paul Street.

"Drum Major Landin was the hero of the day all along the line, showing rare skill in handling his staff," reported The Afro-American on April 12, 1918.

"He is a Philadelphian and a fine cakewalker and as the band jazzed he swung his staff in majestic style," observed the newspaper. "Then the men of the regiment showed that they are the equal of any, if not superiors, of all in marching ability, so erect was their carriage and even their steps."

"While the streets were packed with mixed crowds of white and colored people - with the white predominating - Baltimore today welcomed back its Negro troops who had fought in France," reported The Evening Sun. "They were met with wild cheers and made a hit such as will not be forgotten by them for a long, long time."

More than 2,000 troops, many of them wounded and blinded, participated as well.

"Those colored soldiers did some parading, too," reported The Sun.

"Down Druid Hill Avenue, McCulloh Street, Cathedral Street and Charles Street they executed their drills in a ragtime swing, jumping from a platoon front into a column of fours with the ease and smoothness of veteran soldiers," observed the newspaper.

On a horse-drawn tally-ho pulled by four great white horses, Landin, with baton in hand, "executed all of those tricks which made President Wilson laugh during the Liberty Loan parade here last April."

At Lexington and St. Paul streets, Landin attempted to climb down from the tally-ho and cakewalk for a few minutes, when the delirious crowd surged forward and mobbed him.

With order somewhat restored, the parade resumed. As it passed James Cardinal Gibbons' residence on Charles Street, the archbishop of Baltimore was seen "laughing heartily at Landin's antics," reported The Sun.

The crowds were so enormous that Mayor James H. Preston couldn't make his way to City Hall to receive the First Separate Company and was forced to watch the parade from the doorway of the Lexington Hotel.

The parade then headed to the armory, where they were met by Gov. Emerson C. Harrington, who addressed the troops.

"I want to thank you on behalf of Maryland for your inestimable service, for what you have done 'over there' for the state," he said.

"I knew you were willing to defend the country that gave you your liberty, and I want you to remember that you came back to build up the country.

"You don't find the red flag, anarchy or socialism among the Negro people, and so long as you are law-abiding you will enjoy every privilege of a free people. You didn't go to France, but only stopped there on the way to Berlin - for there were no Huns too strong for you," Emerson said.

The governor promised a state celebration for all returning veterans.

"It will be for all, whether in the Army or Navy, white or black," he said.

Oregon Milton Dennis presented certificates to a number of veterans.

"You are no longer African-Americans or colored men - you are just plain Americans through and through," Dennis said, "and the city deeply appreciates your help in whipping the Huns."

In an editorial, The Afro-American was less than laudatory, complaining that the veterans had to wait a month before the city recognized their wartime service, with many of them drifting back into civilian life.

The editorial also objected that plans made by a citizens' committee organized to support the parade had been hijacked by the city and governor, who set the agenda, including the time and date.

It also took exception to Landin's performance.

"The secret of Landin's attraction in his parades in the city seems to have been in the fact that he was the first drum major to do in the public streets what others have only ventured in the theatres," read the editorial.

It concluded: "President Wilson is said to have smiled. There were only two things to do - smile or blush."

In contrast, The Evening Sun had nothing but praise.

"At any rate, Maryland Day of 1919 is going down in the histories of all colored organizations as one of the biggest events that they have ever pulled off in this city," observed the newspaper.

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