Chapter VI

A Critical Situation in the Camps


Race Problems that Had to be Solved---Fear of the Southern Whites that Trouble would Follow the Training of Negro Troops in the South---Situation Complicated by the Houston Riot---Protest of the Governor of South Carolina---Dr. Scott Called to Spartanburg, S. C., to Allay Trouble There---How the Negro Soldier Finally Won the Respect and Confidence of the South.


Secretary Baker would not brook discrimination against colored soldiers. It is of official record that at no time during the war period did the Secretary of War give countenance to the practice of discrimination against colored soldiers because of their race. On the contrary, there are many instances which may be cited to prove that he was sincerely and vigorously opposed to any exhibition of race prejudice, and that officers and men have met with severe and condign punishment for acts in contravention of justice to the colored defenders of the flag.

It will be remembered that just after the Houston riot in Texas, during the month of August, 1917, there was a common feeling throughout the South that no more colored troops should be stationed on Southern soil. Many problems, therefore, had to be solved in connection with sending the Negro soldiers into the various camps. There was the fear, ill concealed in the North as well as in the South, that if Negro soldiers, in large numbers, were sent into any particular camp they would be a menace to the surrounding population and to peace and order.

When the time came to call colored troops under the draft, so strongly did some of the Southern States feel on this subject that officials and citizens visited Washington to protest against such troops being sent into their States for training. This was notably true of South Carolina, a visit to Washington being made by Governor Manning, who most strongly conveyed to the War Department the feeling of the citizens of that commonwealth. The War Department, however, adhered to its policy of sending colored units of National Guard organizations to the camps where such National Guard Divisions were to be trained, whether it happened to be in the North or the South.

Under this program it so happened that the 8th Illinois Regiment, colored, was sent with the remainder of the Illinois National Guard to Camp Logan, Houston, Texas, where the riot, just referred to, had occurred in August of the same year. The 8th Illinois was commanded from Colonel to corporal by colored officers, Col. Franklin A. Denison being in command. The old fires of resentment were rekindled and it was difficult to predict what would follow. Col. Denison, himself a native of Texas and an attorney who had won wide prestige as Assistant City Prosecuting Attorney, and afterwards Assistant Corporation Counsel of Chicago, handled his men wisely and well, and no outbreaks occurred between the white citizens of the town and these colored soldiers who were being trained for service overseas. Week by week during the course of the training Col. Denison and his men won the confidence of the best white and colored citizenship of the town. He asked for a "square deal" for his men, and he resolved that they should not suffer because of the former riot, with which they had nothing to do, although at several places en route to Houston from Illinois they were jeered at along the way, stoned in one or two places, and a riot was barely averted at a way station in Texas.

The Ninth Ohio was sent to Camp Sheridan, Montgomery, Alabama, the capital of the Confederacy, along with the Ohio National Guard Division. Organizations of colored citizens under the leadership of Mr. Victor H. Tulane, a trustee of Tuskegee Institute and friend and counselor of the late Booker T. Washington, took charge of the matter of bringing the colored and white people of the city into agreement so that there should be no untoward incident while the Ohio battalion was at Montgomery. A change as to sentiment soon followed among the citizens of various cities throughout the South where National Guard Camps, or National Army Cantonments were located, when the colored soldiers began to show by their demeanor that they were bent upon serious business and that they were disposed to go about their business without molesting the common citizenship, asking only that they in turn be not unfairly treated.

It is to the credit of the South that outside of the common friction which always occurs where any group of soldiers are gathered, whether they be white or black, no clash of the kind feared took place during the whole period of the training. City officials, judges, and chiefs of police began to speak in the highest terms of the men, expressing in nearly every instance great surprise that none of the anticipated troubles had occurred. The relations between the colored and white soldiers in the camps, with rare exceptions, were pleasant and friendly; and where those exceptions occurred it was due more or less to the policies pursued by such authorities as were fearful of untoward results rather than to any other reason.

Shortly after the Special Assistant was called to service, the Secretary of War held a conference with Mr. Raymond B. Fosdick, Chairman of the Commission on Training Camp Activities, and the author, making a survey of the whole situation with reference to the presence of these colored men in the various camps and cantonments and expressing the hope and idea that the Commission on Training Camp Activities would make full provision for the entertainment, recreation, and amusement of colored soldiers, such as was being provided for white soldiers. Mr. Fosdick, as the responsible executive officer of this important work, most enthusiastically developed and carried out this program. His representatives in the various States cooperated, more or less slowly to begin with, but in the end most enthusiastically, to provide proper recreation and amusement for colored as well as for white. It is a fact to be noted, however, that the War Camp Community Service organization made provision for colored soldiers in only one city during the first seven months after they were drafted, but between May, 1918, and August 5 of the same year, six or eight clubs were opened in various cities.

Military Training An Educational Uplift

While the Field Signal Battalion and some of the Headquarters companies of the 92nd Division were composed of specially trained enlisted men, and well educated men selected from the draft, there was an amazing amount of illiteracy when the Division was first organized. As the trains from the South brought the men into the camps during the bleak days of November, 1917, they were a spectacle to behold. Hundreds coming directly from the cotton and corn fields or the lumber and mining districts---frightened, slow-footed, slack-shouldered, many underfed, apprehensive, knowing little of the purpose for which they were being assembled and possibly caring less---the officers but recently from the training camp received them.

The task of making soldiers of such raw material presented a most discouraging problem. Night school with the veriest rudiments of elementary training and talks on the simple rules of better living and army sanitation were conducted by the officers of every organization in connection with the daily drill schedules. The officers of the 92nd Division determined to make men of this material, men capable of occupying a larger place in the community life at the same time that they were making soldiers of them, fitted to fill the place in a modern fighting machine such as was being built by the United States Army. Without exception the men showed that they were eager to learn; and as the stoop came out of their spines, the shamble from their gait, they learned to read and write their names. On the first pay-roll of one regiment of the 92nd Division 90 per cent of the men being unable to write, made their marks. Five months of night school eliminated this condition and in its place came smartness in drill, cleanliness in billets, discipline, a pride in the uniform, respect for the flag, and the ability to sign their names to the pay-rolls. When that same regiment which had had 90 per cent of its members unable to write their names was on its return trip South to be mustered out of the service, Red Cross workers in two cities marveled at the improvement in the men's appearance, some doubting that they were the same men who had passed these points going into the draft. The difference was not one of appearance alone, for every one of those same men gave Uncle Sam a receipt in his own handwriting for his final pay and was capable of correcting any error that might have been made by the clerk.

All of the new influences which the colored soldier met in the camp conspired to give him a new vision, and the testimony from such widely separated points as Camp Dodge, Ft. Des Moines, Iowa, and several of the camps in the South will illustrate the change which soon came to be noted as to the conduct and demeanor of the colored soldier.

Collier's Weekly dispatched one of its staff contributors, William Slavens McNutt, to make a round of all the camps and cantonments and to report conditions as he found them. In one of these articles entitled, "Making Soldiers in Dixie," Mr. McNutt devoted considerable space to the description of the change which was taking place in the Southern cities and towns,, and even in some of the Southern camps where colored soldiers and Southern white men were being trained for overseas service. In this article Mr. McNutt reported visits made by him to two Southern camps and paid many compliments to the Negro soldiers because of their solemn attitude toward the war and the earnestness with which they undertook and passed through the ordeal of training.

A Situation at Spartanburg, S. C.

But it was not all easy sailing in all the camps and there was considerable jarring from time to time and enlightening wisdom and firmness were required to overcome certain threatening situations. One of these stands out in my memory particularly just now, and is probably being related for the first time. At Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the New York National Guard units were being trained, there developed a little trouble. The 15th New York Regiment (colored) under command of Col. William Hayward, which regiment afterwards came to be known as the 369th, won enduring fame in France, being the first colored combat regiment to go overseas. On October 22, 1917, Col. Hayward came personally to the War Department to place before it the highly inflammable situation existing at Spartanburg, South Carolina, near which city Camp Wadsworth was located. Spartanburg is a small Southern city which closely follows what are usually regarded as Southern traditions and prejudices in the treatment of the Negro. Some of its citizens rather felt that something was needed to let the jaunty Negro soldiers from New York "know their place," and so one Sunday evening when a colored soldier, Noble Sissle by name, stepped into a white hotel to buy a New York newspaper, the proprietor walked up to him, it is stated, and with an oath demanded to know why he did not remove his hat. Sissle, holding the newspaper in one hand and his change in the other, did not quickly enough respond to the demand and his hat was knocked from his head. When he reached down to pick it up and arose he was all but felled by a blow, and as he retreated toward the door was kicked by the irate proprietor. On the sidewalk, awaiting Sissle's return, was Lieut. James R. Europe, a colored officer, bandmaster of the 15th New York Regiment. A group of colored and white militiamen "rushed" the hotel, but were "called to attention" by Lieut. Europe, who demanded that the crowd disperse.

The New York militiamen expressed themselves as being violently opposed to the treatment which had been visited upon Sissle; and so the next night a group of these soldiers banded together and began marching to Spartanburg, several miles away, to "shoot it up" as the soldiers at Houston had "shot up" that town after the clash with the Houston police in the August preceding.

It was only because of Col. Hayward's courage and firmness in overtaking these men, and in safely bringing them back to camp that another Houston riot was for the moment averted.

The feeling grew more and more, intense, however, and Col. Hayward, to ward off another "situation, " came to the War Department. The Special Assistant to the Secretary of War was hastily summoned by the Secretary of War and ordered to proceed to Spartanburg. The atmosphere, it was easily observed, was surcharged. Col. Hayward called his officers together, advised them of the object of the mission of the Special Assistant to the Secretary of War and had all non-commissioned officers of the regiment assemble. Col. Hayward then withdrew and carried with him every commissioned officer of the regiment. Non-commissioned officers usually prove themselves to be the backbone of a regiment, and it was these men that Col. Hayward desired I should address. These men and the Special Assistant to the Secretary of War were thus left alone to discuss the delicate situation face to face and in the frankest way possible. My address to these men was an appeal and admonition to do nothing that would bring dishonor or stain to the regiment or to the race which they represented; that whatever of violence they should do in the present difficulty would only react upon their race throughout the country, and that the situation was potentially dangerous, in that it was hardly to be expected that the country would stand for another riot of the Houston character, despite the fact that the men, when visiting the town, had suffered rebuffs and mistreatment which had tried their patience and caused them to wish to visit violence upon the community.

As the Special Assistant now recalls that dramatic setting in the late afternoon of that Fall day, there is nothing in the service rendered by him in the War Department which be remembers more vividly, or as being more serviceable than that appeal addressed to these men, that they should listen to the counsel of patience for the Great Cause, even in the face of studied insult and maltreatment. Afterward many of the men, with tears streaming down. their faces, approached him and voiced how bitterly they felt in the face of the insults which had been heaped upon them from time to time as they passed through the town, but at the same time they told him of their willingness to listen to the counsel which had been addressed to them for the sake of the Negro race, and for all that was at stake for it and the country during the war.

The War Department faced three situations: It could keep the regiment at Camp Wadsworth and face an eruption, and possibly further anger the white citizens who were opposing the retention of the regiment there, while at the same time inflaming the men of the regiment and many of the white New York guardsmen who were restive under the treatment accorded the colored soldiers, or the regiment could be removed to another camp and thereby convey the intimation that whenever any community put forward sufficient pressure, the War Department would respond thereto and remove soldiers from such location, whether they had given provocation for such demand or not. As a third alternative the Department could order the regiment overseas. The latter alternative was decided upon, and soon after reaching New York the 15th New York was on its way overseas.

The story of its wanderings from camp to camp in America, of its ship breaking down after being two days at sea, and of its return to New York harbor, of its finally reaching France, and of the glorious record it achieved as the 369th Infantry will be recounted again and again by the heroic survivors for years to come.

Chapter VII. Colored Officers and How They Were Trained

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