Otis B. Duncan
Otis B. Duncan was an officer in the United States Army
United States Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...

. He was the highest-ranking African-American in the U.S. Army during World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, serving as a lieutenant-colonel in the 370th Infantry Regiment.


Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

 was different from other states during the Jim Crow era
Jim Crow laws
The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly "separate but equal" status for black Americans...

 in that it organized, and paid for the training of, an all-African-American regiment within the Illinois National Guard
Illinois National Guard
The Illinois National Guard comprises both Army National Guard and Air National Guard components. The National Guard is the only United States military force empowered to function in a state status. The Constitution of the United States specifically charges the National Guard with dual federal and...

. This unit, organized in the 1870s, was the 8th Illinois Infantry
370th Infantry Regiment (United States)
The 370th Infantry Regiment was the designation for one of the infantry regiments of the 93rd Infantry Division.-8th Infantry Regiment, Illinois National Guard:This was an all-black militia regiment founded in the 1870s....


Otis B. Duncan was born on November 18, 1873. He was a member of a long-established African-American family of Springfield, Illinois
Springfield, Illinois
Springfield is the third and current capital of the US state of Illinois and the county seat of Sangamon County with a population of 117,400 , making it the sixth most populated city in the state and the second most populated Illinois city outside of the Chicago Metropolitan Area...

; his father was a grocer
A grocer is a bulk seller of food. Beginning as early as the 14th century, a grocer was a dealer in comestible dry goods such as spices, pepper, sugar, and cocoa, tea and coffee...

 and his maternal grandfather, barber
A barber is someone whose occupation is to cut any type of hair, and to shave or trim the beards of men. The place of work of a barber is generally called a barbershop....

 William Florville, had been a friend of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...


In 1895, Duncan became a worker for the state of Illinois, serving in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (the predecessor of the current Illinois State Board of Education). In addition, Duncan entered the Illinois National Guard in 1902; assigned to the 8th Illinois, he was commissioned as an officer. When the 8th Illinois was called into national service during the Pancho Villa Expedition
Pancho Villa Expedition
The Pancho Villa Expedition—officially known in the United States as the Mexican Expedition and sometimes colloquially referred to as the Punitive Expedition—was a military operation conducted by the United States Army against the paramilitary forces of Mexican insurgent Francisco "Pancho" Villa...

 into Mexico in 1916, Duncan served as a major
Major is a rank of commissioned officer, with corresponding ranks existing in almost every military in the world.When used unhyphenated, in conjunction with no other indicator of rank, the term refers to the rank just senior to that of an Army captain and just below the rank of lieutenant colonel. ...

 on the regimental staff.

After the U.S. entry into World War I, the 8th Illinois, still in national service, was renamed the 370th United States Infantry. As the infantry took ship for the Western Front
Western Front
Western Front was a term used during the First and Second World Wars to describe the contested armed frontier between lands controlled by Germany to the east and the Allies to the west...

 in France, Duncan became the field commander of the regiment's 3rd Battalion. Still in this capacity, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel on April 3, 1918. After the commander of the 370th Infantry, Col. Franklin Denison, was replaced by a white officer, Lt. Col. Duncan became the highest ranking African-American officer in the United States Army. This was a significant achievement due to the segregationist attitudes of the then commander-in-chief, President Woodrow Wilson. While serving on the Western front against the German army, Duncan was awarded the Purple Heart
Purple Heart
The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those who have been wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917 with the U.S. military. The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is located in New Windsor, New York...

 and the French Croix de Guerre
Croix de guerre
The Croix de guerre is a military decoration of France. It was first created in 1915 and consists of a square-cross medal on two crossed swords, hanging from a ribbon with various degree pins. The decoration was awarded during World War I, again in World War II, and in other conflicts...

 for gallantry in action.

After the war, the 370th Infantry reverted back to its prewar status as the 8th Illinois Infantry, and Duncan was promoted on March 18, 1919 to the rank of colonel and commander of the regiment.

Col. Duncan retired from the state education bureau in 1929 and died on May 17, 1937. He is buried in Camp Butler National Cemetery
Camp Butler National Cemetery
Camp Butler National Cemetery is a United States National Cemetery located a few miles northeast of Springfield and a few miles southwest of Riverton, a small town nearby to Springfield, in Sangamon County, Illinois. It was named for Illinois State Treasurer at the time of its establishment,...

 near Riverton, Illinois
Riverton, Illinois
Riverton is a village in Sangamon County, Illinois, United States. The population was 3,048 at the 2000 census. It is part of the Springfield, Illinois Metropolitan Statistical Area.-Geography:Riverton is located at ....

 in section 3, grave #835. American Legion Post #809 in Springfield is named in his honor.

Springfield race riot

Despite (or perhaps because of) his service as an officer in the Illinois National Guard, Duncan was a prominent victim of the Springfield Race Riot of 1908
Springfield Race Riot of 1908
The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 was a mass civil disturbance in Springfield, Illinois, USA sparked by the transfer of two African American prisoners out of the city jail by the county sheriff. This act enraged many white citizens, who responded by burning black-owned homes and businesses and...

. Contemporary news accounts indicate that a white mob broke into and ransacked Duncan's house; they shattered furniture, smashed the family piano
The piano is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It is one of the most popular instruments in the world. Widely used in classical and jazz music for solo performances, ensemble use, chamber music and accompaniment, the piano is also very popular as an aid to composing and rehearsal...

 and used Duncan's National Guard saber to gouge out the eyes of a portrait of Duncan's mother that was hanging in the house. The mob was reported to have stolen clothes, jewelry and everything of value they could find, including the saber.
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