How World War I shaped the course of the black experience in the twentieth century
World War I brought about tremendous change for African Americans and their place in American society.
This article is extracted from Chad Hamilton's essay "African Americans and World War I", which can be read in full here...
World War I was a transformative moment in African-American history. What began as a seemingly distant European conflict soon became an event with revolutionary implications for the social, economic, and political future of black people.
The war directly impacted all African Americans, male and female, northerner and southerner, soldier and civilian. Migration, military service, racial violence, and political protest combined to make the war years one of the most dynamic periods of the African-American experience. Black people contested the boundaries of American democracy, demanded their rights as American citizens, and asserted their very humanity in ways both subtle and dramatic.
Recognizing the significance of World War I is essential to developing a full understanding of modern African-American history and the struggle for black freedom.
When World War I ended on November 11, 1918, African Americans anxiously and optimistically hoped that their patriotic sacrifices would have a positive impact on race relations and expand the boundaries of civil rights.
Political leaders attempted to exert influence on the Versailles peace proceedings. W. E. B. Du Bois organized a Pan-African Congress, held in Paris from February 19 to 21, 1919, which challenged the legitimacy of European colonialism. William Monroe Trotter of the Equal Rights League was so determined to reach Paris that, after being denied a passport by the State Department, he obtained passage as a cook and ultimately presented his case to the peace conference.
International pressure was closely tied to the domestic expectations of African Americans. Homecoming parades for returning black soldiers, in the North and South, attracted thousands of people and signaled a determination to translate their service into social and political change.
On February 17, 1919, the 369th Infantry Regiment famously marched up Fifth Avenue and into Harlem before some 250,000 onlookers. A spirit of determination, inspired by the war, surged throughout black America. Du Bois voiced such sentiment in the May 1919 Crisis editorial "Returning Soldiers," declaring, "We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why."
African Americans were indeed forced to fight, quite literally, for their survival following the war. James Weldon Johnson characterized the bloody summer of 1919 as the Red Summer. Fears of labor unrest, "bolshevism" stemming from the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the return of black soldiers spawned a nationwide surge in violence, much of it directed at African Americans. Race riots erupted in several cities, the most significant occurring in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
In October 1919, whites in Elaine, Arkansas, massacred hundreds of black people in response to the efforts of sharecroppers to organize themselves. In the South, the number of reported lynchings swelled from sixty-four in 1918 to eighty-three in 1919. At least eleven of these victims were returned soldiers. For African Americans, the end of the war brought anything but peace.
How African Americans responded to the postwar resurgence of white supremacy reflected the depths to which the aspirations of the war and expectations for democracy shaped their racial and political consciousness. The war radicalized many African Americans and deepened a commitment to combat white racial violence. At the same time, the contributions of the soldiers, as well as peoples of African descent more broadly, to the war effort swelled racial pride.
Marcus Garvey tapped into this social, political, and cultural milieu. A native of Jamaica, Garvey brought his new organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), to New York and soon attracted thousands of followers. The UNIA, predicated upon the principles of Black Nationalism and African diasporic unity, quickly became the most dominant mass movement of the postwar era. A host of other radical organizations and newspapers complemented the UNIA and signaled the arrival of the "New Negro."
The impact of World War I on African Americans often receives less attention than the effects of the Civil War and World War II. Because racial conditions failed to improve significantly after the war, it is often viewed as a disillusioning moment. To the contrary, World War I brought about tremendous change for African Americans and their place in American society.
The Great Migration, starting in 1916, when millions of African-Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West, transformed the demographics of black communities in the North and the South. The war effort allowed black men and women to assert their citizenship, hold the government accountable, and protest racial injustice. Military service brought thousands of black men into the army, exposed them to new lands and new people, and allowed them to fight for their country. Black people staked claim to democracy as a highly personal yet deeply political ideal and demanded that the nation live up to its potential.
World War I represents a turning point in African American history, one that shaped the course of the black experience in the twentieth century.
Source: Africana Age