Monday, June 04, 2018

African Americans and World War I

African Americans have had a huge role to play during the events of World War One. It was a time of great changes in the African American community. It was a very dangerous time where violence and massive lynchings harmed the lives of black people. This war saw the beginning of the First Great Migration (from 1916 to 1930), which was about the huge travel of about 1.6 African Americans from the South into the North and Midwest, especially in the large urban centers like New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Detroit, etc. Black cultural traditions traveled nationwide. African Americans came up to went into the North for many reasons. Many black people wanted to escape Jim Crow tyranny where innocent black men, women, and children were abused, lynched, murdered, raped, and tortured. Some were sharecroppers and wanted greater economic opportunities in the North and the Midwest. Some wanted to see adventure and escape massive poverty or economic exploitation. Yet, the more things change, the more that they stay the same. In the North and the Midwest, segregation was heavily banned. Yet, black Americans still experienced de facto segregation (or segregation by an unwritten, discriminatory policy not by law), poverty, economic exploitation, racial tensions including white racism, and substandard housing.  Black people continued to fight back though. Black people formed organizations, worked in civil rights groups, and used networks to help black people in America too. The Chicago Defender and other African American newspapers told the truth and inspired change. The NAACP was in existence. Black people always fought for jobs, housing, and other resources. The Harlem Renaissance, which was a superb cultural movement, was filled with excellent forms of music, literature, and art. That is why the Harlem Renaissance was established in part by the Great Migration. WWI was claimed by some to promote “democracy.” Yet, the truth is that democracy and justice wasn’t completely shown to African Americans back then or even today.

During the start of WWI, most black people and most Americans in general opposed the war. Some felt that it wasn’t their problem. Many black people back then felt that the war was contradictory to claim to advance democracy but America denied black people basic human rights at home. It is not a secret that President Woodrow Wilson (who was a stone cold racist) back then didn’t want true equality and justice for humanity regardless of skin color. The American government passed the anti-liberty laws of the June 1917 Espionage Act and the May 1918 Sedition Act that curtailed dissent in American society. The socialist Eugene Debs was heavily persecuted because of his anti-war views. People have every right to dissent and to express intellectual diversity. Some African Americans opposed the war because of being against war in general out of moral reasons (when anti-war activism and pacifism were common back then). One person said the following quotation and it's from Arthur Shaw of New York: “…If America truly understands the functions of democracy and justice; she must now that she must begin to promote democracy and justice at home first of all.” A. Philip Randolph and Chandler were editors of the socialist newspaper called, “The Messenger.” Both of them publicly encouraged African Americans to resist military service because of the massive racial oppression harming black people. They were monitored by federal intelligence agencies too. Over one million African Americans followed draft calls. By the time of the armistice with Germany in November 1918, over 350,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Charles Broadnax was in the service too as a black man from Virginia. The NAACP created “Soldiers Troubles” to document the experiences of black soldiers during World War One and to confront racial injustice.

Two major combat divisions for African Americans were the 92nd Division (which was made up of draftees and officers) and the 93nd Division (which was made up of mostly National Guard units from New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Massachusetts). Many black people were discriminated against in service and restricted form serving in high ranking positions. Black women served as Red Cross members, nurses, and other jobs. There was the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) which held rallies and gave support to the black troops. Black women also worked in America while many men went into the battlefields of Europe. Black women in Mobile, Alabama heroically walked off the job in fighting for better working conditions and rights. Emmett Scott (or the former secretary to Booker T. Washington) was a special assistant to the Secretary of War in charge of matters related to African Americans during the war. WEB DuBois ironically supported WWI, because he believed that it could cause black people to experience democracy and justice at home as a catalyst. The 93rd Division’s 369th Infantry Regiment was a famous fighting unit (made up of mostly African Americans and some Puerto Rican Americans) from New York. They were nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were the first African American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Before them, any African American had to enlist in French or Canadian armies to fight in WWI. The 369th were powerful and courageous in combat. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were the first American soldiers to receive the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross). Henry Johnson was a former Albany, New York rail station porter. The regiment served for 191 days (in the trenches) and ceded no ground to German forces. They worked with the French Army by April 8, 1918. In France, the 369th was treated as if they were no different from any other French unit. The French did not show hatred towards them and did not racially segregate the 369th. The 369th finally felt what it was like to be treated equally. The French accepted the all-black 369th Regiment with open arms and welcomed them to their country. The French were less concerned with race than the Americans, due to manpower shortages. They fought in the Second Battle of the Marne. The 369th was the first American regiment to reach the Rhine River in Germany following the armistice and returned to the United States national heroes. The 92nd Division suffered racist treatment. Many of them were court-martialed on bogus charges. Many African American troops interacted with North and West African soldiers who served in the French military. This expanded black African Diasporic belonging. Black Americans came into France to escape Jim Crow. France didn’t have Jim Crow and many black people were treated better in France, but France still had racism and colonialism. WEB DuBois and his friend William Monroe Trotter of the Equal Rights League wanted to fight European colonialism while they were in the Versailles peace conferences.

The leader of those conferences refused to give equal rights to people of color. From May 1918 to November 1918, the 371st and 372nd African American Regiments were integrated under the 157th Red Hand Division commanded by the French General Mariano Goybet. They earned glory in the decisive final offensive in the Champagne region of France. The two Regiments were decorated by the French Croix de Guerre for their gallantry in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry Regiment was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor as the only African American to be so honored for his actions in World War I. Stowers died in helping his men fight the Germans in battle. African American regiments in World War I were usually accompanied by bands. The most famous was the band of the 369th Infantry, led by James Reese Europe, a prominent musician whose syncopated style animated the dancing of Vernon and Irene Castle, creating a craze for social dancing. 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor. In response to protests of discrimination and mistreatment from the black community, several hundred African American men received officers' training in Des Moines, Iowa. By October 1917, over six hundred African Americans were commissioned as captains and first and second lieutenants. The NAACP also fought against voter suppression. Many people in America used to permit grandfather clauses to deprive black people the right to vote. The grandfather clause meant that a man could only vote if his grandfather had voted. This harmed many black people since many black citizens' grandfathers were slaves and slaves couldn't vote during the 19th century. Poll taxes, literacy tests, violence, voting fraud, and intimidation were used by racists to harm voting rights. The NAACP successfully fought against this in court to an extent. By 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that grandfather clauses in Maryland and Oklahoma constitutions were null and void (since they violated the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution). The case was Guinn v. United States. Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, and other leaders fought against lynching too.

On February 17, 1919, the 369th Infantry Regiment marched up Fifth Avenue and into Harlem before 250,000 people. They were at Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street to 145th and Lenox (in NYC). Pvt. Henry Johnson was so moved by the outpouring that he stood up waving the bouquet of flowers that he was handed during the February parade. It would take another 77 years for Henry Johnson (who knew hand to hand combat) to receive an official Purple Heart from his own government. Eugene Bullard was one of the greatest black soldiers of World War I. He was the first African American military pilot. He flew for France. He was born in Columbus, Georgia and his ancestors came from Haiti form the days of the Haitian Revolution. Aileen Cole Stewart was a famous black nurse during WWI too. The aftermath of World War I saw an increase of anti-black race riots or pogroms, the growth of the Black Nationalist Garvey movement, and the growth of jazz. Racial discrimination didn’t end after World War I. During the summer and fall of 1919, anti-black race riots erupted in twenty-six cities across America. The lynching of blacks also increased from fifty-eight in 1918 to seventy-seven in 1919. At least ten of those victims were war veterans, and some were lynched while in uniform. Yet, more black Americans continued in the fight for black liberation and social justice. Civil rights group grew and black people organized more in economic institutions, religious groups, and other positive groups for social change. We honor the heroic black people who stood up for our freedom that we are still fighting for today in 2018.

By Timothy

No comments: