...Chapter XXXI

...What the Negro Got Out of the War


A Keener Sense of His Rights and Privileges as a Citizen of the United States---The Attitude of the South---Returning Negro Soldiers and Conditions in the North---The Attitude of Organized Labor---Instances of Discrimination---The Black Man and His Claims to Equal Treatment.

What the Negro should get out of the war ought to be determined largely by what he put into it. Practically all colored leaders of consequence felt that in spite of the wrongs the race had from time immemorial suffered every member of the race should be loyal. To secure cooperation to this end special appeals were made to the colored people of the country for their unstinted support. A specially selected Committee of One Hundred colored speakers to whom reference has been made, acting with local groups everywhere, was appointed and materially assisted in the work of maintaining the morale of the Negro race throughout the war, the demobilization of the army and the reconstruction of the nation on a peace basis.

Briefly stated, the Negroes did their full share in the great struggle to make the world safe for democracy. Four hundred thousand Negro soldiers were drafted or enlisted and 200,000 served in France under white officers and 1,200 officers of color. Negroes served in all branches of the military establishment---the cavalry, infantry, artillery, signal corps, medical corps, aviation corps, hospital corps, ammunition trains, stevedore regiments, labor battalions, depot brigades, engineer regiments, as regimental clerks, surveyors and draftsmen. Negro soldiers acquitted themselves with honor in the battles of the Argonne Forest, at Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, at St. Mihiel, in Champagne, in the Vosges, and at Metz, and when the Armistice was signed Negro troops as has been pointed out were nearest the Rhine. Entire regiments of colored troops, including the 369th, 370th, 371st,, and 372nd, were cited for exceptional valor and decorated with the French Croix de Guerre. Groups of officers and men of the 92nd Division were likewise decorated. The first battalion of the 367th also received the Croix de Guerre. Many individuals like Harry Johnson, Needham Roberts, and William Butler were awarded the Croix de Guerre and scores of officers by devotion to duty earned, even if they did not receive promotion in their military units.

What has the American Negro got out of the war? Time alone can bring the full answer to this sweeping question. To some of the manifold implications which the query itself involves, however, some answers can already be made. For one thing, the war has brought to the American Negro a keener and more sharply defined consciousness, not only of his duties as a citizen, but of his rights and privileges as a citizen of the United States. The colored people of America performed to the utmost of their ability the duties which the war imposed upon all citizens, black and white alike.

A summary of what the Negro wants may be stated: He wants justice in the courts substituted for lynching, the privilege of serving on juries, the right to vote, and the right to hold office like other citizens. He wants, moreover, universal suffrage, better educational facilities, the abolition of the "Jim Crow" car, discontinuance of unjust discriminatory regulations and segregation in the various departments of the Government, the same military training for Negro Youths as for white, the removal of "dead lines" in the recognition of fitness for promotion in the army and navy, the destruction of the peonage system, an economic wage scale to be applied to whites and blacks alike, better housing conditions for Negro employees in industrial centers, better sanitary conditions in the Negro sections of cities, and reforms in the Southern penal institutions. If, after having fulfilled the obligations of citizenship Negroes do not get these things, then indeed, they feel, will the war have been fought in vain.

Racial Attitude of the South

Judging from the favorable comments in Southern newspapers as to the desire for more amicable relations between the races and the tendency of Southern whites to labor for a new day of brotherhood, many have thought that this enviable situation would result as a sequel of the World War. In fact there have been a few instances of distinguished white men who have interfered in behalf of the Negro soldiers subjected to indignities on their return from the war. A number of white people on a train refused to permit a conductor to eject from the passenger car reserved for whites a Negro soldier who returned from France with his Croix de Guerre and Distinguished Service Medal. A Southern officer on one occasion boldly upbraided his people for their failure to accord to Negro soldiers the treatment due those who have offered their lives to defend the honor of this country.

Most of the professed friendship for the Negro in the South, however, is largely an economic one, peculiar to the whites who have materially suffered by the migration of the Negroes and who are now very much disturbed by social unrest among the thousands of returned Negro soldiers who find in the South conditions too intolerable to be longer endured. The South as a whole is much disturbed by the question as to whether these soldiers who got a glimpse of real democracy in France will patiently submit to the treatment they received in the South before the World War. A larger number of Southerners have tried to bring about a recrudescence of the Ku Klux Klan to instill fear into the hearts of these Negroes, that they may keep the social status assigned them. There are many signs of opposition and discontent. Segregation and much ostracism still face the Negro and lynching is about as rampant as ever. So far as the South is concerned, therefore, it is not yet known whether or not the Negro will benefit by the sacrifices he has made for democracy.

Conditions in the North

The North too has not been found a paradise for the returning Negro soldiers. One hundred thousand of them have on account of conditions obtaining in the South declared that they will not again live in that section. In the North they must crowd into cities already grappling with the problems of an increasing Negro population resulting from the migration during the World War. One finds in the North, therefore, some of the same conditions obtaining in the South. In Pittsburg the whites posted threatening signs on the doors of the colored people declaring that the war is over and Negroes must stay in their place. Recently Chicago became the scene of a, race riot between Negroes and whites who bore it grievously that their community is being invaded by an increasing number of blacks. The chances for employment, moreover, have not increased. Unusual efforts have been made to find employment for the demobilized white soldiers but the Negro soldiers experience much difficulty in finding a free opportunity to live in this country for which they so nobly fought.

In the North, however, there is a growing healthy sentiment in the interest of fair play. Many of the best citizens contend that the largest task of democracy is that of keeping her own house in order. The mere talking about ideals and theories is not so difficult as to practice them. These gentlemen deplore the fact that race prejudice seems inbred in the spirit of men and that the claims of aristocracy make a difference in one's feelings toward those who seem to be less fortunately situated. Democracy, they contend, must be made a reality. It must be considered an ideal toward which we struggle and we must not grow impatient and discouraged when we fail to realize it. Democracy must not find it difficult to provide a place for the Negro. He must be treated with justice, his interests must be protected, his life must he held precious, his children must be educated, his health must be preserved, and his rights as an American must be defended. These things they claim for the Negro because of his unusual loyalty, because he is not inoculated with any social theories, because he does not contribute to industrial discontent, because, above all, his patriotism is without alloy. Since he has made a good soldier, borne wounds, privations and death in the nation's battles to make the world safe for democracy, he deserves to find a place for himself beneath the flag for which he has fought and within the borders of the country for which he was willing to die.

In view of the fact that the Negro faithfully supported the government he expected to get a much larger portion of the benefits of democracy than was given him. The Negro expected above all that as a fundamental concession in the adjustment of affairs necessary, for the reconstruction to herald a new day for the man farthest down, that colored men would at least be given full opportunity to earn a living. Much was expected from the Department of Labor when Dr. George E. Haynes was appointed as a Director of Negro Economics to mobilize colored labor to help win the war and secure for it a higher position when industrial reconstruction should follow a victorious peace. When, however, the Department of Labor itself drew the color line, refusing to employ Negroes for certain purposes altogether on account of their color and regardless of their efficiency, this proposed good to come to the Negro caused many Negroes to call upon Dr. Haynes to emulate the example of the traditional Arab by folding his tent and quietly stealing away back to the schoolroom to teach the untutored of his race the real meaning of democracy, rather than permit himself to be a party to the camouflage of mobilizing Negro labor of the country.

Attitude of Organized Labor

The Negroes expected too that the hard and fast rules of labor organizations which have for years barred men of color from the. higher pursuits of labor, would be abrogated. It was believed that there would be new avenues for the employment of Negroes and that the so-called friends of Negro labor would be able to effect more than to secure from trade unions mere expressions of interest in behalf of the Negro laborers. It is unfortunate, however, that the Negro still finds himself refused admission to labor unions and then told that he cannot work because he is not a union man. He is denied the chance to care for his family properly and then censured because of his failure to do so. In Northern States where these restrictions have been very rigid it has been difficult to maintain order. Almost any day we hear of reports that some "gang" is hunting Negroes with the intention to do them violence and disturbances and race riots growing out of these conditions are now becoming common.

The Negro, moreover, was disappointed in his expectation to get fair play in the Civil Service of the Government. In the midst of the war, when at an unusually heavy expense to the Government, thousands of agencies had to be quickly established to, expedite military preparations as much as possible, the United States Government found itself seriously suffering from a dearth of civil employees in its offices. As the demand was so great that it was necessary to waive the regulations that each should pass the civil service examination, the colored people instead of having a larger opportunity seemed to be less considered than formerly. The Civil Service Commission has inaugurated the scheme of requiring every applicant in a civil service examination to present his photograph so as to eliminate, it is quite generally felt, the Negro and when the examinations were waived altogether their problem of restricting the service entirely to white people was easily solved.

Instances of Discrimination

Some of these instances are interesting. Mrs. Sitka D. Thomas of Washington, D. C., and hundreds of others were certified to Departments for clerical appointments but were rejected. One Miss Taylor, a graduate of Howard University, was certified numerous times to various bureaus in the service, rejected 16 times and finally on personal appeal from her father was given a clerical position at $720 per annum when $1,000 appointments were literally going begging. One Miss Roberts, a graduate of the Boston Latin School, was certified five times as a clerk to different bureaus and rejected every time. A Mr. Thompson, now employed in the Department of Justice, was certified to the Ordnance Bureau, where he was told that colored clerks were not wanted. Miss Aurelia Ferguson, formerly a, teacher in the public schools of New Hampshire, was certified to the War Department, but rejected on the grounds that she was already employed in the civil service and could not be appointed to a position paying a higher salary. She was again certified to the War Trade Board and when she presented her telegram was told that "some mistake had been made" as her card could not be found. In April, 1918, she was again notified by telegram that she had been appointed in the Bureau of War Risk at a salary of $1000 and that her services were urgently needed. Upon reporting, she was again informed that her card could not be found. She took up the matter with one of the Senators from New Hampshire, but he was compelled in the end to report that nothing could be done as it seemed to be the policy of that Bureau not to appoint colored clerks, --only a few out of the 14,000, or more, clerks are colored.

The Negro race and especially the Negro soldier expected that in consideration of what the race as a whole did for the winning of the war, it would receive more consideration in the army when, upon a revelation as to the truth about the slander upon Negro officers the fair-minded people of this country would be convinced as to the worth of the Negroes who led their fellow men at the front and would see to it that hereafter Negro troops be commanded by Negro officers. On the contrary, however, coming out here and there in the army wherever the Negro officer has endeavored permanently to attach himself to the service, have been what appear to be definite efforts to eliminate the Negro officer entirely. As a means to this end certain officers in charge of such recommendations have turned down several colored officers who were awarded medals of honor for distinguished service in France. In the case of Thomas M. Dent, who attained distinction in France, the prejudiced officers in charge undertook to brand him as disqualified "because of qualities inherent in the Negro race which make Negroes incapable of being leaders and officers." Upon appeal to the War Department, however, this decision was set aside.

Not only has there been an effort to get rid of the Negro officer but in many cases also the Negro private. When, after demobilization of most of the army, it became necessary to call for 50,000 volunteers for special duty it was specifically stated that these volunteers were to be white, not Negroes. Here was an opportunity to show one's patriotism and the Negroes nobly volunteered to manifest theirs, but considering the opportunity a much more desirable one than the ordinary enlistment of soldiers, it was reserved to white men. The Negroes then, it would seem, must he patriotic, must make personal sacrifices for the country, and even give their lives to defend it, but they must not expect to get out of it the same returns which will come to white men.

Upon the return to the United States, the Negro soldiers expected that "Jim Crowism" and segregation would receive a check if not eliminated altogether. The Negro soldier returning from the front bore it grievously that on arriving home be had to ride in "Jim Crow" cars, and be excluded from the use of public places. Their contention is that these places are licensed by the Government, established and often wholly maintained by it and, therefore, should be accessible to all. They contended, moreover, that exclusion from these public places often means no such facilities for Negroes or. if at all, decidedly inferior accommodations,

Better Treatment Demanded

The Negro expected, too, a change in the attitude of the white man toward the right of the blacks to exercise the highest functions of citizenship. It has required little argument to convince the Negroes that they are powerless in the hands of the militant whites when the former can neither vote nor hold office. Relying then upon principles long since set forth by the fathers of the Republic that the men who fight for the country ought to share the control of its government, the Negroes have boldly presented their case to the world. This petition has, in most places, fallen upon deaf ears. Instead of a tendency to extend the right of franchise there has been something like a recrudescence, as already stated, of the Ku Klux Klan so as to intimidate the Negroes of the South that they may not seek to reach this end.

Intelligent Negroes, therefore, who got some idea of the real liberty in France although they were not permitted to enjoy it overmuch, are united in demanding bettor treatment from the American people and to this end have organized a League of Democracy to further their interest. They will not accept excuses, they say; they will not keep silence, they must be heard. They want to enjoy the same rights and privileges vouchsafed to all other citizens regardless of race, creed, or condition. Americans, therefore, they hope, will oppose those enemies to democracy at home that the Junkers were to democracy in Europe. There must come a new day, Negroes feel, for the United States when the country will square itself with its own conscience and with the world in regard to its attitude toward the Negroes in America.

It will be interesting, therefore, to understand exactly what some of the colored leaders are thinking. A very advanced position has been taken by Dr. A. A. Graham, of Phoebus, Virginia, whose words may be quoted here:

"It is necessary now as never before that the black man press his claims as an American citizen. He should demand every right which this government owes to those who maintain its life and defend its honor. He should be willing to make no compromise of any kind, nor be satisfied with anything less than full justice. He has paid the price which all men have bad to pay for liberty within the law. He has made the supreme sacrifice which entitled men to every just consideration of the government to which they pay allegiance. His shortcomings as a man and a human being did not excuse him from any of the duties and sacred responsibilities which the government imposed upon those whom it recognized as worthy of its claim upon them. He was called to volunteer when the country was in danger, as other men were called. He was conscripted. He was subjected to all the hard disciplines and exposures to death to which other men of the nation were exposed, and as an unquestioned American citizen, was asked to support all the war program from the purchase of savings stamps to the suffering and death in the trenches and on the battle field.

"No allowance was made for his so-called inferiority, and none was spoken of. The Government laid claim to him, both body and soul, and used him as freely as if he were the equal of any other man behind the guns or who had curly hair and blue eyes. The path he had to walk was just as rough, the load he had to carry was just as heavy, and the life he gave just as sweet, as that of any other man who laid his all upon the altar. He should contend, therefore, for every privilege, every comfort, every right which other men enjoy. He should fight wrong and injustice for himself and his children with the very same valor that lie fought the Hun for the nation, and he should fight with the same good judgment and wisdom."

The Negro as a Citizen

And in the Southwestern Christian Advocate, of New Orleans, Louisiana, the Reverend Dr. Robert E. Jones, an outstanding leader of the Negro race, voices the sense of this new recognition of the Negro's position as a citizen. He says:

"The statement of Lincoln, that this country could not exist half slave and half free, has been thoroughly vindicated by subsequent. history. Just as that statement was a true interpretation of the life of the American Republic, at the time it was uttered, so is a modern application of that statement equally true. This country cannot exist half democratic and half autocratic. This country cannot exist with a part of its citizenship enjoying the full privileges guaranteed by the Constitution, while a large segment of our citizenship is oppressed, discriminated against and hindered in many ways.

"The London Guardian in referring to a statement of the boundary question between Holland and Belgium said that in ordinary times such questions would be the making of serious trouble and then the Guardian pertinently adds, 'The times, however, are not ordinary.' And these are not ordinary times. They are very unusual. The pot of civilization is boiling. Things are to be settled, but they will not be settled unless they are settled right. And the Negro wants his status changed from that of practical peonage to that of free, independent manhood with an upward look and an unhindered pathway. He wants this, first of all, on the basis of his place in the human brotherhood of divine right. He wants this on the basis of the marvelous progress that he has made in freedom.

"It has often been said that no race in all history matches the progress in the same length of time of the Negro race during the past 50 years. He wants it by the revelation of his soul life as shown forth in slavery as well as in freedom. That superb fidelity of the Negro slave to the trusts of those who left him behind should bring a blush of shame to the South when it permits now such frequent lynchings without redress and in many cases without investigation. But the Negro wants also his status fixed on the basis of what he has earned by the force of arms. With our allies we won a mighty victory over Germany. It was a triumph of democracy over autocracy. The Negro had a hand directly in this victory, but did be not also indirectly win for himself by every rule of the game, larger privileges than be had heretofore enjoyed?

"The New York World in a recent editorial says: 'War has sinister markings of its own, won in all sufficiency. There is no room for the color line across its horrid front. Such is the thought that suggests itself afresh, for there have been other events calling to mind the gallantry of our colored troops.' And then the New York World refers to the fact that the Negro soldiers were decorated by the French authorities, 'For extraordinary heroism under fire.' The World continues: 'The words sweep aside every consideration other than that of soldierly merit. The man who dares and does, he is a man for all this and all that.

"The Negro has WON his decorations in France on 'soldierly merit.' He has WON at the same time by the manifestation of his courage, and his devotion and his loyalty, a more even chance in American life. And the victory should be made sure. And let us not mince words. We do not intend now that we have served the Nation in every war of the Republic and that we have borne our full share, according to our capacity, in every phase of the World War, to further accept the indignities heaped upon us as a race without a solemn protest to every sense of conscience and right in America and without appeal to the sense of conscience of civilization the world over.

"There is one thing this World War has done. It has lifted the Negro problem out of the provincialism of America into the circumspection of the civilized world. We purpose to carry our cause into the open forum of the world. We purpose to let the world know that the soldiers that brought glory to the American flag on the fields of France are denied the common courtesies in too many cases when they return home. And surely our appeal to the world will not fall altogether on deaf ears. There will be an awakening, you may rest assured, a sense of right and of justice that will react upon American life. We make this appeal to the world in no sense of disloyalty to our Nation. We do it because we are loyal. We will be heard. We will not be lynched and robbed and hedged about without a solemn protest. We do not plead for pity or sympathy. We want what we have earned by every rule of the game.

The Negro's Wonderful Patience

"A white man said the other day, in discussing relations between the races, 'No other race under the sun would endure what the Negro does except the Negro.' White men would not stand for a moment, if they had our status of intelligence and of wealth and of numbers, or submit to the disfranchisement, the uneven opportunities, the oppression and discriminations that we meet on every hand. Someone has said much about race consciousness. Whatever that means, we know this, that much the Negro suffers white men would not endure for twenty-four hours, nor will we in the future without a protest. And we expect to find in the heart of the Nation, North and South, East and West, among those who are supposedly opposed to us, as well as among our friends, men and women who will lend themselves to a readjustment of our life in the Nation, so that we shall have a measure of peace and the pursuit of happiness. We will make our appeal with the certainty that we do not stand alone. If we did, the appeal would be worthless. But there will stand with us a powerful minority, a minority even in the South that is prophetic of a better day. But it must not be thought that this minority, North or South, will champion our cause unless we have a personal appreciation of our own condition and an intense desire for real freedom. He who would be free must strike the first blow. Statutes and proclamations by the score will not help the Negro unless the Negro first is in a position to be helped. Our friends must know our desires. We are making them known in as plain a way as we know how. We do this in love out of a desire for peace and good-will, believing that a more equitable readjustment of the relations of the races in this country will strengthen our National bonds, increase our National wealth, add to our National contentment and hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven."

With a broad vision, too, the Negroes of this country have looked forward to a better day for the Negro race throughout the world. From the League of Nations the race has expected an amicable adjustment of relations in Africa so as to secure to the natives the opportunities for social, economic and political development. The author urged in an address delivered in Carnegie Hall, New York, November 2, 1918, that with a view to granting larger liberties for African allies the Peace Conference would establish an International Commission, one member of which would be an American Negro. Because of the revolting cruelties perpetrated upon the natives in the African dependencies, American Negroes have protested against any contemplation of restoring to Germany her African colonies. Is it too much to say that to restore these helpless black men to their former oppressors would be a terrible betrayal? Has not the hour come when men even in darkest Africa may cry out for the right to elect or ordain their own destinies under an acceptable tutelage, and the guidance of enlightened men rather than under oppressive and cruel masters? If the Senegalese, Algerian and Sudanese troops stayed the Hun and saved civilization to the world, the nations of the world should see to it that these people be removed from the iron heel of malignant oppressors.

With a similar plan in view, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois was enabled to go to France as a newspaper correspondent during the session of the Peace Conference and there, with a permit from Premier Clemenceau and his co-workers, succeeded in bringing together a sufficiently large number of intelligent Negroes and sympathetic whites to hold what he called a Pan-African Congress of which he was made secretary. There was much discussion as to the rights of the Negroes throughout the world and plans for establishing the same. The Congress was not of one accord in expressing an attitude of censure toward those nations in control of the blacks in various parts of the world, for the reason that all of these nations are not equally culpable. The Congress did make some impression in Paris and passed the following significant resolutions:

"Wherever persons of African descent are civilized and able to meet the tests of surrounding culture, they shall be accorded the same rights as their fellow citizens; they shall not be denied on account of race or color a voice in their own government, justice before the courts and economic and social equality according to ability and desert.

"Whenever it is proven that African natives are not receiving just treatment at the hands of any State or that any State deliberately excludes its civilized citizens from its body politic and cultural, it shall be the duty of the League of Nations to bring the matter to the attention of the civilized world."

Appendix A: Commissioned at Ft. Des Moines

Table of Contents