Otis B. Duncan (November 18, 1873 - May 17, 1937) was an officer in the United States Army. He was the highest-ranking African American in the U.S. Army during World War I, serving as a lieutenant-colonel in the 370th Infantry Regiment.
1.1 World War I
1.2 Springfield race riot
Illinois was different from other states during the Jim Crow era in that it organized, and paid for the training of, an all-African-American regiment within the Illinois National Guard. This unit, organized in the 1870s, was the 8th Illinois Infantry.
Otis B. Duncan was born on November 18, 1873. He was a member of a long-established African-American family of Springfield, Illinois; his father was a grocer and his maternal grandfather, barber William Florville, had been a friend of Abraham Lincoln.
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 into Mexico in 1916, Duncan served as a major on the regimental staff.
World War I
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 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 and the French Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action.
After the war, the 370th Infantry reverted 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 near Riverton, Illinois, 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. Contemporary news accounts indicate that a white mob broke into and ransacked Duncan's house; they shattered furniture, smashed the family piano 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.