Episode 9, Season 4
U.S. involvement in world wars and the domestic Black freedom struggle shaped one another. By emphasizing the diverse stories of servicemen and women, historian Adriane Lentz-Smith situates Black soldiers as agents of American empire who were simultaneously building their own institutions at home. While white elected officials worked to systemically embed segregation into government, African Americans attempted to bolster their citizenship and freedom rights through soldiering.
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- Learning for Justice Student Text, Negro Hero (grades 9-12)
- Learning for Justice Student Text, Hidden Figures of Women's History: Cathay Williams (grades 6-8)
- Learning for Justice Student Text, James Henry Gooding's Letter to Abraham Lincoln (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice Student Text, Enslaved People in the War (grades 3-5, 6-8)
Bethany Jay: During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled "Negroes and the National War Effort." As he addressed the audience at National Hall in Philadelphia, he argued, "Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letter US, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on Earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." Douglass' statement was a response to the fact that Black men had been barred from military service, and a call to duty now that Abraham Lincoln had allowed Black enlistment in the Union Army. But it also was a call for the racial equality and equal rights that Frederick Douglass believed Black military service would bring.
Bethany Jay: It must have seemed that Douglass was too optimistic, or just plain wrong about the connection between service and rights. The Union Army gladly began accepting Black soldiers in 1863, but equality was not part of the deal. Black soldiers were paid $10 each compared to the $13 white soldiers earned. And while white soldiers were given an extra $3 for uniform needs, Black soldiers had the same amount deducted from their paycheck. And the inequity didn't stop there—only white men were allowed to be commissioned as officers.
Bethany Jay: African American leaders around the country—and the soldiers themselves—worked simultaneously to protest inequity in the military while bringing victory to the Union. And Black soldiers had a big impact on the Union war effort. By the end of the war, about 180,000 Black soldiers had served. At battles like Fort Wagner—you probably remember this one from the movie Glory—the heroism of these men invigorated the Black movement for citizenship rights.
Bethany Jay: During the 1864 National Convention of Colored Men, which was attended by the likes of Henry Highland Garnett as well as Frederick Douglass, abolitionist John S. Rock, Esq. of Massachusetts spoke about Black military service. He acknowledged that it had not always paid the dividends they expected, explaining, "Many of our grandfathers fought in the Revolution, and they thought they were fighting for liberty. But they made a sad mistake, and we are now obliged to fight those battles over again, and I hope, this time, to a better purpose. We are all loyal. Why are we not treated as friends? This nation spurned our offers to rally around it for two long years and then, without any guarantees, called upon us at a time when the loyal white men of the North hesitated. We buried the terrible outrages of the past, and came magnanimously and gallantly forward.
Bethany Jay: "In the heroism displayed at Milliken's Bend, Port Hudson, Fort Wagner, Olustee, in the battles now going on before Richmond, and everywhere where our men have faced the foe, they have covered themselves all over with glory. They have nobly written with their blood the declaration of their right to have their names recorded on the pages of history among the true patriots of the American Revolution for liberty."
Bethany Jay: John S. Rock also linked heroism in war to the pursuit of equality in peacetime. "All we ask is equal opportunities and equal rights. This is what our brave men are fighting for. They have not gone to the battlefield for the sake of killing and being killed; but they are fighting for liberty and equality. We ask the same for the Black man that is asked for the white man; nothing more, and nothing less."
Bethany Jay: Black soldiers and radical Republicans also made calls for Black citizenship rights. Wendell Phillips of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society argued that Black men had an "Equal share with the white race in the management of the political institutions for which he is required to fight and bleed." And Lincoln himself voiced his support several times during the war for some form of Black enfranchisement. In his last public speech, Lincoln addressed Black citizenship rights saying, "I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers." Of course, Lincoln did not live long enough to see that plan through. Instead, Black voting rights would be a product of Congressional Reconstruction, secured by the 15th Amendment.
Bethany Jay: So why, you ask, are we talking about the Civil War when this episode is about Black service in 20th-century world wars? It's because there is a long legacy of Black men using military service as a claim for civil and political equality. And there is also a long legacy of being "obliged to fight those battles again."
Bethany Jay: Unfortunately, the promise of suffrage and civil rights—those rights that the blood of Black soldiers seemed to have secured—were short-lived after the Civil War. The dismantling of Reconstruction and the end of federal oversight of elections in Southern states led to the racial violence and voter suppression of Jim Crow. So as Black men volunteered or were drafted in 20th-century world wars, for the most part they faced similar questions and had many of the same goals as those Civil War soldiers.
Bethany Jay: I'm Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Bethany Jay: African Americans have served in every major conflict since the Revolution despite segregation and resistance to those strides towards equality. In this episode, we examine the complicated relationship between military service and the Black freedom struggle. Historian Adriane Lentz-Smith spoke with my co-host Hasan Kwame Jeffries about the diverse stories of servicemen and women in World War I. They discuss the transformational impact of their experiences overseas, the backlash they faced at home, and how their service bolstered efforts to dismantle Jim Crow.
Bethany Jay: I'm so glad you can join us. Let's get started.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I am really excited to welcome to the Teaching Hard History podcast, Dr. Adriane Lentz-Smith. Adriane, I'm so glad that you could join us. Welcome!
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the central themes in the American experience, in the African-American experience, in the courses that we teach on American history is the centrality of conflict, war. And certainly during the Jim Crow era, we have two major wars—World War I and World War II. And African Americans play a major role in those conflicts, and those conflicts play a major role in the lives of African Americans. But the wars during the Jim Crow era certainly weren't the first wars that African Americans participated in. Could you share a little bit about the longer history, a little background if you will, on African-American participation in American conflicts?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Sure. African Americans have been involved in every major war in American history, and have in fact been part of the fight for American independence, democracy, freedom, whatever you want to call it, since the colonial period, right? So Crispus Attucks was one of the first people to give their blood in the cause of American independence, and he was Black. And you go from Crispus Attucks through the American Revolution, through the War of 1812, forward and forward, and so forth and so on.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: African Americans have been a part of every war. Their participation in those wars have been largely under-narrated and undervalued. And their experience in most of those wars, time and time again, was of giving something to the cause of American democracy, freedom, security, that the Black community did not get back in return.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What is motivating African Americans to take up arms in defense of the United States? And does that change over time from the Revolutionary era to World War I?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: It does. I mean, as with all questions in history, some things change and some things remain relatively consistent, right? In the early period, in the making of the thing that we will end up calling America, people fight for a wide variety of reasons. And this is true. Like, a job as a job. And sometimes you fight because it's available and it's a thing to do. There are people who fight in service to the idealized, the abstracted American project. But people are literally fighting during the Civil War for freedom—for their freedom and that of their families. And Black soldiers' service was one way to force the issue of emancipation, to make a claim on the American state and nation and to say "We've given our lives, we have been far more loyal to this thing that we call America than the folks who would hold us in bondage."
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And in the Civil War that pays off. And I think what happens in subsequent wars time and time again is that people are looking for the compact to work in much the same way, even aware of the absurdity and the awfulness that they are having to do this yet again and yet again and yet again. I think that folks in the moment have an expectation, right? African Americans and their allies have an expectation that military service will bring expanded access and acceptance. But by and large, Black military service incites the same people who are opposed to other manifestations of kind of Black people participating in public life of any kind.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If we zero in on this period after the Civil War to World War I, what is the driving assumption about military service specifically that leads Black folk to believe or to hope that it will provide access to this promise as opposed to something else? Is there something very specific going on in the American mind that says, "Huh, if you do this in war, this then becomes the reward."
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And not just in war, but in military service in general, right? There is a standing army, and there are not a lot, but, you know, four Black units in the standing army. So this is both about the way that Black folks serve in state militias, and then it's about how they serve in the federal army. In wartime, like in the Spanish-American and, you know, Philippine Wars, and in all of those, there is a rhetorical linking between Black soldiering, manhood and citizenship, that not just Black folks are doing, right?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: The way that Americans, broadly speaking, talk about what it means to be a soldier, bounds those three things up deeply together. And it is hard to have someone act as a soldier without ceding some understanding of them as men in this, you know, early 20th century way that is about valor and courage and duty and all of those things. And it's also hard for folks not to put those two associations together and say, "And this is the model of what it looks like to be fit for citizenship." So much so that in the 1890s and early 1900s, when Southern legislatures are stripping African Americans of their citizenship rights, you also see them disbanding Black state militias by and large. There are a few by the time we get to 1917, but not very many. And they do it—and they will say as much that they do it—because you can't have people in the militia who are not treated like citizens. And even more, they're aware that Black folks in military service will expect themselves to be treated like citizens.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: While African Americans are soldiering for citizenship if you will, and for the recognition of their rights and to secure freedom in a broadly conceived way, especially after emancipation, like, "Okay, we've ended slavery. But we're going to continue in this project, because there's these citizenship rights that we have to secure." They're also engaged as agents of American Empire. And I'm thinking as a kid hearing stories about the Buffalo soldiers, and it was like, "Yeah! That's cool! That's awesome!" And then you get a little older, and it's like, "Oh, wait. That's what they were doing out West? Participating in land theft and genocide?" So whether it's out west or in the Philippines, what was going on there, and how do we make sense of it?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: I mean, you're right. We can talk about the Indian wars, we can talk about the Buffalo Soldiers or the standing four units in the regular army as the kind of ground troops of American Empire in the continental West and then in the Pacific.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: The Indian wars and the Civil War overlap. And Black soldiers who become part of the Union Army find themselves actually part of those Indian wars. And as we develop these four standing army units: the 24th and 25th Infantries and the 9th and 10th Cavalries—the Buffalo Soldiers—they become really important and active parts of pursuing and subduing Native Americans. And it could be that some soldiers were troubled by that and it gave them pause. It could also be the case that some people were so bound up in the kind of mainstream imagination of the American project that they had no pause at all.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: So they're doing the work of what we would have called in an older time that actually hides the settler colonialism of it all, "Winning the West," right? And then keeping it won. Which is really the work of American Empire, right? It's the work of American expansion. It's the work of American Empire. And it's the same work that many of them will end up doing in the wars of the 1890s and into the early 1900s. We have the Spanish-American War, Spanish-American and Cuban wars and then the Philippine wars, which all sort of come of a piece.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: What happens when Spain concedes the Philippines to the United States is that folks in the Philippines who'd been fighting a war for independence then pivot to fight against Americans. And so when Black Americans are fighting that war—and in many ways experiencing the benefits of being empowered and ferocious and manly in this space—they are again doing the work of American Empire, right? Americans will end up staying in the Philippines for quite some time with Black soldiers, with Buffalo soldiers, an important part of that policing force. And so they really are, in many ways, experiencing the kind of bump in status and prestige that comes with a certain kind of imperialism or sort of colonial presence.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Willard Gatewood's wonderful book of letters from Black soldiers in that war, Smoked Yankees, has accounts of people who are all over the spectrum, right? So some of them are excited because they have an elevation in status and stature that comes from being the colonial force, right? Like, they're the ones with the power and the money, and they get treated in ways that they're not going to get treated at home, precisely because in those ladders of hierarchy and subordination, they're for the first time occupying a higher rung. That's not solidarity, that's not thinking about, like, "We are people who are somehow subject to the same racial logic suffering under power." They're thinking, "Look where we are," right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: There's this really tricky kind of irony and web in which Black soldiers are pursuing citizenship through military service, they're pursuing an end to white racial democracy, or maybe even racialized democracy overall, but they're doing it in such a way by participating in the very imperial system that is going to intensify and strengthen the racial logics that manifest in American empire. But then there are people like David Fagen who actually deserts and goes over to the side of Filipino nationalists, and who I think ends up getting caught and executed. But he sees the critique and acts on it. But we know his name, Fagan's name specifically, because he tends to be the exception as opposed to the rule.
Bethany Jay: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources—as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Now let's return to Hasan's conversation with Adriane Lentz-Smith.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, once America gets involved in World War I, close to 400,000, 386,000 African Americans will have some kind of wartime military experience. And about half of those—200,000—will go abroad with the American Expeditionary Forces. What are the experiences of African Americans during World War I?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Well, so of the 200,000 who go abroad with the AEF, 160,000 of them are in labor battalions, which means that they're doing work like stevedoring, building roads, building railroads, that sort of thing. And then 40,000 of them, or roughly 40,000 of them are combat troops. And so for the folks who are in labor battalions, a lot of the experience is just of crushing hard work and not a lot of glory. For the folks who are in the combat troops, some see a little combat. Some see a great deal of combat. The members of the 93rd, which include the handful of Black National Guard units that have been federalized, are actually given over to the French, to French command for the duration of the war, because the French were woefully short on men and just begged for someone, and this is who the US was willing to give up. They were incredibly well decorated by the French military, because the French were willing to acknowledge Black military accomplishments in a way that the Americans were not. But those decorations bespeak a great deal of suffering and trauma and injury even as they speak to courage and heroism.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Often when you look at primary sources, people writing diaries about their service, or letters home, or those wonderful digitized surveys that the Library of Virginia has about soldiers' experiences, you see folks, even folks who are proud of themselves and in no way regret their military service, who would do it again, you see those folks willing to talk about or sometimes hint at the toll that that service also took on them, the trauma that soldiers experienced. And I think it's important for us to understand that when people say that they're willing to make this sacrifice for the nation or for their race or for their community or sort of whatever they're doing it for, that it is no small sacrifice, and that it hurts them. And some of those folks will heal from that hurt, and some won't. The 369th, which had been the 15th New York National Guard, was under fire for something like 190 days, the longest of any American unit.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The 369th. Those are the Harlem Hellfighters, no?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Those are the Harlem Hellfighters, although historians Jeff Sammons and John Morrow will tell you that they were more correctly called Harlem's Rattlers, but I think then as now, Hellfighters is a catchier name, and that's what stuck, right?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: So they're the most famous Black unit of World War I. They're the one with the incredible band that is led by James Reese Europe, who is both a musician and composer and lieutenant in the Army. So he had to shift between leading this band and actually fighting. And they produce probably the most famous story of Black combat in this period, which is the story of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, who are two guys out on patrol who end up fighting off an incursion of attacking German soldiers just the two of them. And after Roberts is wounded, it's really just Henry Johnson alone, right? First with gun, and then when his gun gives out, when his bullets give out, hitting them with the gun, and then when the gun breaks, pulling out a knife. That story is broadcast everywhere. He's incredibly celebrated, but I think it's also very indicative of something of the Black experience with the military, because he's celebrated for a minute and then he's forgotten, and then he dies in poverty. And his story's gone until the 1970s or '80s.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: I think one of the reasons that the 369th is as famous as it is, it's both because of what they accomplished and what they did, but it's also because there were folks in that unit who leave a trace, who were either famous before they went in or who do something that let us see what the 369th did. Folks who were involved in the 369th have written memoirs. From Noble Sissle, who was sort of James Reese Europe's right hand man both as a musician, but then very close to him also in the 369th, to Arthur Little, who was a white officer but one who appreciated what his men could do. James Reese Europe and Noble Sissle, the musicians whose music that they write songs about the war, the kind of use of the syncopated beat to talk about No Man's Land, that's both striking to people in the time and fun to teach with now.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And then there are people like Horace Pippin, who was not famous going into World War I, who was just a working guy who joins the 15th New York National Guard, but who was an artist. And so he both keeps a diary that tells you a little bit about what it was like to be under fire for so long. He draws sketches in his notebook, so you can see pictures of them sitting in their bunks or what have you. And when he comes out of the war, he paints and paints and paints. He says that the war sort of like, "Put the art in me," or some quote like that. And his material, some of it is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, some very striking paintings. But his World War I diary is at the Smithsonian and digitized. So I often pull that up to teach with.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: 1915, 1916, the color line is certainly well-established, and anything that is going to happen militarily is going to be racially segregated. Is there something that you could point to to explore the ways in which African Americans are debating what to do about segregation in the military?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Yeah, I think the most prominent example, and in some ways, the one where I'm not sure that if I were a person sitting around in 1917, I don't know where I would come down, sort of the most outstanding example of folks debating how to respond to, deal with and/or accommodate segregation in the military comes with a debate over an officers' training camp, right? African Americans want there to be Black officers. The standard assumption on the part of military leadership and of the Wilson administration broadly speaking is that even if you're going to have Black troops, you should have white officers. And they often say, "And if we're going to have white officers, it should really be white Southerners who oversee Black troops because they know how to handle them." And so pulling again on these long histories of, if not coerced, deeply ill-treated labor and the assumption that you get people to do things through maltreatment.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And so Black folks are like, "Okay, all of that sounds terrible. And what we want and what we deserve are Black officers in charge of Black troops." If that's to happen, if the army is going to do that, then they say, "Okay, fine. We'll give you a segregated officer's training camp." And it becomes a dilemma. W.E.B. Du Bois writes an article in The Crisis where it's basically like, "What do we do? Do we hold the line and then have no officers? Do we compromise on this and reinforce this idea that segregation is acceptable?" And then he comes down, and eventually the community broadly speaking comes down on the side of, "Okay, if it means our consistency of position and no officers or a segregated camp and officers, we'll take the segregated camp. But know that we don't like it."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm. And how should we explore the experiences of African-American women during this time?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: I'm a sucker for memoir. And so memoirs of Black women who were in France with the AEF, the most famous of which—which is in the public domain, so you can search for it on the interwebs—is Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces by Kathryn M. Johnson and Addie Hunton. You know, what they say is that they realize no one was going to tell this story if they didn't, or tell it fairly. And so they gathered a memoir that is both about Black soldiers, but about what they were doing as YMCA volunteers on behalf of Black soldiers. And I love that book. I love that book because it has a kind of like sensitive, heartbroken admiration for the willingness of soldiers in the AEF to continue doing what they were supposed to do in the face of all kinds of maltreatment.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: One of the things that makes World War I interesting from the perspective of African-American history, World War I is one of the first mass experiences of being out in the world and experiencing something beyond what you know. You know, you've had Black travelers for a very long time. You've had transnational networks through things like the AME Church or folks who were missionaries, but this is a wide cross-section of folks, and they're seeing things with their own eyes that they may or may not have ever heard about or read about. But this is immediate and it's visceral and it's eye popping, right?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: For someone who never meant to go further from Monroe, Louisiana, than, say, Rayville, Louisiana, to suddenly find yourself in Saint-Nazaire or Marseilles or on the Western Front somewhere, and to see racial dynamics and logics playing out in a way that doesn't look like how they played out where you are. I mean, Kathryn Johnson tells a story of sitting on a streetcar and a Tirailleur, so a Senegalese soldier boards. And a white French woman not only gives up her seat but kisses his hand. She's saying, "Thank you. Thank you for what you've done to France," and sort of honoring him. And Kathryn Johnson writes, "Well, if that had happened in the US, someone would have stuck a bomb under the car." Like, "I don't know what the dynamics are that are here, but they are not the ones that I'm used to."
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And African-American men have emotional relationships, friendships, sometimes sexual relationships, sometimes sexual transactions with French women who are often white. And the fact that they can break something that is such a taboo as to mean death where they come from, and can just be a thing that people do where they are is also really mind boggling, right? So it starts making them think about the ways that Jim Crow is specific or particular to their parts of the US. The way that they've experienced racism and racial interactions is a product of their local contexts. Or they look across a cafe, and they see, again, a Tirailleur, or a Moroccan soldier, or an Indo-Chinese laborer or what have you, and they think, like, "All right. I don't really know what that person is about, but here they are, and here I am. And we're all like these people of color sitting around. Do we have any kinship or connection?"
Adriane Lentz-Smith: One of the things that's very hard for soldiers who are overseas in World War I is that they're getting news from home. Like, they know what's happening back home. And in this moment domestically, white racial violence is spiking. Two things bring about the escalation in racial violence. One is the Great Migration. So this mass demographic shift of Black folks out of Southern rural areas into Southern cities and then into Northern cities. And that great migration and demographic shift putting tensions on housing, competition over labor, inciting what may or may not have been more latent racial antagonisms in places that folks move to, like Chicago or East St. Louis, Illinois, or Washington, DC. But all kinds of places, right? So that's part of it.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And then the other part of it is making sure that this push for increased civil and human rights doesn't go anywhere. A lot of that escalation in violence is saying to people, "Let me show you all of the ways in which your continuing to try to pursue change is only going to bring you pain."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: So as and even before many folks ship off with the AEF, we see the East St. Louis—what we call the St. Louis race riot, which is more akin to the kinds of attacks on folks in eastern European ghettos, right? To pogroms. And East St. Louis was the worst incident, worst riot in US history up to that point. And not long after East St. Louis, and in some ways as the kind of opening salvo of the war that does not bode well for Black soldiering, we see the Houston mutiny in late summer, when members of the 24th Infantry, who've been sent down to guard the building of a camp clash over and over again with white Houstonians who are very concerned about what having these "outside" Negroes who have too much sense of their own consequence, who are career military. Like, white Houstonians are trying to tamp down the 24th's sense of their own consequence because they see the 24th as potential outside agitators for their Black communities.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: There are a number of small-scale conflicts that then blow up when two white policemen attack a Black woman in front of members of the 24th who try to intervene and who are then beat up by those same policemen. That day ends with a small subset of Black soldiers marching on the town to go out and get the policemen who instigated all of the mess in the first place.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: It's a horrific tragedy. I mean, one of those policemen is killed in the fight, but most of the folks who are hurt are civilians who have nothing to do with it. A number of Black soldiers are arrested, 13 of them court-martialed and hanged almost immediately, before anybody even knew that their court martial was over. It's this terrible, terrible, terrible mess, and a terrible tragedy that kind of points to the dilemmas, contradictions and heartbreak of the whole military experience in this period.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: But then there are other horrors, right? Like, one of the most famous incidents during the war prior to the Red Summer of 1919 is the lynching of Mary Turner in South Georgia, a woman who's lynched basically for continuing to speak out about the murder of other Black folks in her community not so many days before. Turner is killed viciously by a large public mob. She is pregnant. And so to try to fight a war that will be traumatic anyway, right? The worst conflict in terms of casualties and emotional toll that perhaps folks had seen in modern times, to try to do that while knowing that all of this is happening. Like, what are you fighting for at that point?
Bethany Jay: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD—PD for "Professional Development." That's podcastPD, all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: enlistment. All lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: How are African-American former soldiers treated when they return?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: There's pride within Black communities about Black soldiering. Outside of their communities, there's a huge amount of hostility to even the uniform. You know, I write in my book Freedom Struggles about a guy, Ely Green, who was a chauffeur who went and was a stevedore in Saint-Nazaire and came back. And not only do folks in his small Texas town react against his military uniform, at some point they get so upset about uniforms that they're basically like, "Stop wearing your limo driver's uniform. Like, we don't want to see you in anything! In fact, we want you to leave. The very fact of where you've been and who you think you are because of it is dangerous to us." And he's not anomalous. In that terrible summer of 1919, there are numerous lynchings of Black soldiers, and some of those are Black soldiers in uniform.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Does that response from white Southerners—white Americans, but white Southerners specifically—does that change attitudes of African Americans who thought fighting in the war would be a largely productive thing?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Yeah, it does. I think it shifts the primary strategy of many African Americans who are actively thinking about how you pursue citizenship and freedom rights. So there's a lot of writing in the lead up to the war among pro-war Black folks. So in kind of middle class, Black periodicals that are basically like, "This is our moment to prove what we can do." Or we can think back to the famous editorial by Du Bois, where he writes, "Close ranks. We're going to set aside our special grievances. We don't do this happily, but we do it willingly. And we're going to go, and we're going to help you. And when this is over, we'll come back and try to get what we deserve." So it's all kinds of demonstrating that you're worthy and then asking for something afterwards.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And when they get to the end of the war, and they realize that whatever it is that they accomplished, one would be denied, right? So just as much as there are folks writing memoirs about what Black soldiers did, there are white military people writing narratives of failure to justify removing them out of the standing army. So that's one. They realize one, we're going to be lied about and libeled. And then they also realize, and everything that we accomplish doesn't actually soften segregationists' opinion of us. It doesn't make white supremacists less committed to white supremacy. It incenses and it inflames them and makes them more murderous. And so when this happens again, we're going to figure out how to make demands first, before we offer ourselves over.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And there are some people who will respond by just saying, "Look, I'm going to work within my community to build my community. I'm not going to run at things head on." Like, when I say that, I'm thinking specifically of Ernest McKissick in Asheville—Floyd McKissick's father, right? Who was basically like, "I wanted to work with the Young Men's Institute, and I just wanted to make my community better." One could argue that, again, a sense of kind of militancy, of Black pride, of what have you, is something that he instilled generationally in his family. And it manifests in later generations and in his children.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: But then there are people who come home, and they're so upset and needing an outlet for actively pursuing change that they look for an organization. The NAACP, but even more the UNIA, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. It explodes! And there's a way that the trappings, the aesthetic trappings of Garvey, the organization, the sort of paramilitary haze of it all really appeals to people who are coming out of the military, and for whom that has given them meaning.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: And because the sort of Garvey-ite women are also organized and strong and visible, it provides a space and an outlet for Black women for whom this military period was formative as well. And I think the UNIA appeals a lot because the other thing that you see people thinking about coming out of World War I is what does it mean to be part of a broader community of Black people? What is my connection to Afro-descended people around the world? The UNIA becomes a place for people to sort that out. And then you have radicals, right? So there are some people who are going to go hard left into organizations like the African Blood Brotherhood and then from there into the Communist Party.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about teaching American history in high school in particular there's always that unit on World War I. If there were one or two things that you would want students to take away from this introduction to this aspect of the American past, specifically as it relates to African Americans, what would those one or two things be?
Adriane Lentz-Smith: I would want students to think about how the domestic freedom struggle and the war shaped one another. So I'd want students to think about how African Americans tried to use the international stage as a theater for domestic battles over how far citizenship might extend, and whether Black people can claim it. So we can also have them think about the ways that the Black freedom struggle and other struggles against empire and racialized power, how there's resonance across them.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: You know, I think it's important that we talk about Woodrow Wilson. And I think that Wilsonianism remains so very current in contemporary debates about what US foreign policy should look like: the idea of self-determination, of democracy as something that Americans are willing to pursue and protect. The question that I'm always left with is whether or not that idea can have meaning and promise that is bigger than the man who produced it.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: I don't think that it is controversial. I don't think it's debatable to say that Woodrow was a white supremacist. I mean, I think to say that of a Southern-born Democrat in the early 20th century is about as remarkable as saying that, I don't know, "It rains sometimes," right? People always want to push against that, to argue with it, to say things like, "Wilson was a man of his time," to which I always say, "Okay, but there were lots of people in that time. Du Bois was a man of his time. Ida B. Wells was a woman of her time." Like, Wilson didn't have to think the way that he did, even if so much of his experience pushed him to do so. He had other voices, he had other perspectives offered to him and who were willing to debate him on it.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: He was the president who oversaw the embedding of segregation in Washington. There had been some before him under Taft, but it was extensive, it was systematic. It reached into employing people in the civil service. The expansion and the systemization of it during the Woodrow Wilson administration was striking and had long-reaching consequences. Wilson was a Progressive—capital P—appropriate to the era, but Wilson was a Progressive with close ties and affinities to Southern Progressives, and he appointed many of them into his cabinet and into influential positions in DC.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: Being a Southern Progressive meant that among the many questions and issues and social matters that they set about to solve was "The Negro problem." They saw race relations and framed it as a Negro problem. And segregation was their modern response to "The Negro problem." So in bringing those folks to office and empowering them, they were bringing that kind of set of solutions and practices to DC.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: African Americans saw great danger in this. You see headlines that say things like, "The South is in the Saddle Again." Like, they really see this as Jim Crow gone national, and their concern is about the ways that it could go from there to becoming international. Keep in mind that it's during the first Wilson administration that the US invades Haiti and then remains for two decades. It invades the Democratic Republic. They see Jim Crow as having wings, African Americans do. And they're worried that it's about to take off.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: So the coming of World War I, among the many things that it does, is to offer an opportunity either for African Americans and their allies to disrupt this expansion of Jim Crow, or for Jim Crow's defenders and advocates to see to its expansion. And so one of the questions going into World War I for all of these folks is, "What's going to happen next? And what will the role of this president be? And how will we use the president and his rhetoric and his attitudes and all of these other things to bring about the next thing?"
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Adriane Lentz-Smith, thank you so much for sharing these tremendous insights with us.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: You are very welcome. Thank you so much for having me on.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely.
Bethany Jay: Adriane Lentz-Smith is an associate professor and associate chair in the Department of History at Duke University. She is the author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I from Harvard University Press. Dr. Lentz-Smith is also the host of The Ethics of Now, a Community Conversation Series from The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke. We'll put a link in the show notes so you can keep an eye out for her recent interview with Questlove.
Bethany Jay: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Bethany Jay: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.
Bethany Jay: Thanks to Dr. Lentz-Smith for sharing her insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Bethany Jay: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Bethany Jay: I'm Dr. Bethany Jay, professor of history at Salem State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
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