Kane County History: Elgin's Black Soldiers Served Proudly in U.S. Armed Forces

Kane County History: Elgin’s Black Soldiers Served Proudly in U.S. Armed Forces

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written and submitted by Elgin Museum Educator Rebecca Miller.

Throughout our nation’s history, Black soldiers have served proudly in the U.S. armed forces.

Beginning with the Battle of Lexington and continuing to the present day, Black women and men have answered America’s call and served bravely. Their sacrifice often came at a time when the nation as a whole did not recognize the value of the Black community and offered only limited and segregated opportunities for military service.

Assigned to menial jobs and barred from advancement, Black soldiers were subjected to widespread racism while serving to protect American ideals that did not include them.

Segregated Regiments

The 8th Illinois Regiment was originally formed in 1898 by Gov. John R. Tanner of Illinois. Tanner authorized the formation of a regiment of Black Soldiers recruited from communities in Chicago and Springfield. The regiment made history as it was the only unit to be led by Black officers to fight in the Spanish American War. Shown here in 1917, the regiment would become the 370th U.S. Infantry and go on to see action in France and Belgium. The 370th is one of few African-American regiments that served in combat in World War I and notably was the only regiment commanded entirely by Black officers. Photo provided by Jeff Williams, The Bearded Historian.

Black soldiers serving prior to 1948 were almost exclusively led by white commanders and lower ranking white officers. Black soldiers or all-Black units were reduced to support functions such as building roads or serving as cooks and porters.

Yet the bravery of these soldiers and the potential leadership among their ranks could not be ignored. In the period leading up to WWI, the 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard would make history. This unit would become known as the 370th U.S. Infantry and was made up entirely of Black soldiers, officers and commanders.

The 370th Infantry would see combat in France, becoming the first U.S. regiment in the French region of Alsace-Lorraine. Among its ranks was Elgin’s own Lewis P. Andrews.

Lifelong Elgin Resident

Lewis Andrews is the second on the left. This photo is taken in front of the Second Baptist Church at the corner of Dundee and Kimball on Emancipation Day 1937.

Born in Elgin on Aug. 5, 1879, Lewis Percy Andrews was already a veteran of the Spanish American War (1898) and had been a well-known star on the Elgin High School football team, where he played left defensive end. He was the son of Samuel Newser Andrews, a Civil War veteran who had served in Company B, 42nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry.

Lewis P. Andrews mustered into the 370th U.S. Infantry in 1917 as a supply sergeant assigned to the Quartermaster’s Corps. His incoming rank reflected his prior military service.

Service in France

Due to the pervasive segregation in the U.S. military at this time, the 370th U.S. Infantry fought alongside French forces, using French weapons and supplies. Keeping only their U.S. Army uniforms, the soldiers of the 370th U.S. Infantry even wore helmets provided by the French and ate French rations.

The regiment was noted for its role in the final drive against Germans in the French sector, pushing the front 35 kilometers in a single day. The men of the 370th fought
with distinction in France and Belgium. The Germans who fought them gave the soldiers the nickname of Schwarze Teufel, “Black Devils,” for their ferocity in combat.

The 370th U.S. Infantry suffered 20% casualties by war’s end, losing 95 men. The French government awarded 68 War Crosses to members of the regiment for bravery and meritorious service.

Lewis Andrews and others in the regiment were caught in a German gas attack in 1918. He would suffer lifelong breathing problems because of it.

A Life of Service Back Home

The Fremont Center was located at Fremont and Gifford St. The house was donated by Lewis Andrews for use as an educational center.

Returning to Elgin after the war, Lewis Andrews would soon be appointed as Elgin’s first Black mail carrier, a position he held for 16 ½ years. He would serve as the secretary of the local NAACP. chapter and devote time to service at his church, St. James AME.

Lewis P. Andrews was also among the leading Black citizens of Elgin who worked to establish a community center in the city’s primarily Black neighborhood centered around Fremont, Ann and Hickory streets. After years of dedicated fundraising and organization, the Fremont Recreation Center was founded 1940 and Lewis Andrews would serve as its president for many years.

The Fremont Recreation Center offered youth meetings, cooking classes, woodshop training, game nights, sports activities and music programs. It was the center of Elgin’s Black community from the 1940s to the 1960s. It provided services to the neighborhood that were not available to the residents elsewhere while fostering community pride and neighbor-to-neighbor support.

Lewis P. Andrews died in 1954 and is remembered for his military service to the United States and his community service to the city of Elgin.

About The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum is housed in an 1856 landmark building known as Old Main that was once part of the Elgin Academy campus. The Elgin Area Historical Society, which was founded in 1961, is a thriving organization that operates within the museum. The society has a board of directors with a mission that is driven to preserve and educate the community about Elgin history.

The Elgin History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Two floors of Elgin history exhibits pull you back in time to remember how the community developed from 1835 to today.

For more information, visit elginhistory.org.

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