...Chapter IX

...Efforts to Improve Conditions


Secretary Baker and the Trying Situation. at Camp Lee, Virginia---Reports on Investigations at Numerous Camps---Improved Conditions Brought About Gradually---Help for Colored Draftees---The Case of Lieutenant Tribbett and Similar Cases of Race Prejudice.


From Secretary of War-Memorandum for Mr. Scott.

Should you not go personally to Camp Lee and investigate? Then I can go and finish the job.



The attitude of Secretary Baker toward a trying situation at Camp Lee, Petersburg, Virginia, and his vigorous handling of the charges of racial discrimination that were rife at that military station, was significant of his consistent policy with respect to the colored soldiers throughout the entire war period. The above memorandum was sent to the Special Assistant by the Secretary about the last of November, 1917, in response to a report which the former bad made to him touching the conditions complained of at Camp Lee, and which had formed the basis of the longer memorandum, making known, in language unequivocal and of extraordinary force, the Secretary's antagonism to all practices of discrimination in the Army based on race or color.

At Camp Lee there was much dissatisfaction among the colored soldiers. The reports which came to hand embodied the universal complaint that "the whole atmosphere in regard to the colored soldier at Camp Lee is one which does not inspire him to greater patriotism, but rather makes him question the sincerity of the great war principles of America." The efficiency of the War Department was interfered with, it was stated, because of this unwholesome atmosphere. The colored soldiers were compelled to work at menial tasks, regardless of their educational equipment or aspirations for higher duties, and discontent reigned because it was said the white soldiers were given genuine, intensive military training, while Negroes were not given enough drilling to give them the simplest rudiments of real soldier life and were not permitted to fire a gun. The statement was made that if the Negroes were allowed to be trained for combatant service, as white soldiers were, thousands would be inspired to enter the work more whole-heartedly, and the Labor Battalions would also show a larger measure of efficiency by the inculcation of a feeling that colored men were getting a "square deal." Not a few of the men asserted plainly that it was useless for colored men to try to improve themselves at Camp Lee, as white officers openly admitted to them that sergeants and an occasional sergeant-major was as high as the Negro might hope to reach, no matter what might be his intellectual attainments or executive ability.

Mr. C. H. Williams, of the Hampton Institute, Virginia, a young colored man of superior training, was designated by the Committee on Welfare of Negro Troops of the War Time Commission of the Federal Council of Churches to visit all the cities where military camps were located, to make a survey of conditions as they affect colored troops. Under an arrangement he filed with the Special Assistant a copy of each of his reports, so that they might be followed up from time to time inside of the War Department so as to change conditions where necessary. Mr. Williams sought to get the exact facts as to the feeling of the colored soldiers as well as of the colored population in the camp cities, and as he went from one part of the country to the other he also got a line on Negro public opinion generally. Practically all the camps and cantonments where colored troops were located were visited by him as well as by the Special Assistant.

Mr. Williams submitted a survey of conditions as they existed. His survey included inquiry into the social and religious conditions and the state of mind of the colored troops generally and made recommendations as to the steps that should be taken to bring about a correction of the ills complained of. At some points he found the situation fair, in others not good, and in many it was inexcusably bad. All of this had to do in the most direct fashion with the morale of the colored soldiers, and hence the remedy to be sought for the unfavorable circumstances indicated in Mr. Williams's reports was regarded by the Special Assistant as a mission of the highest and most pressing importance.


"Discrimination as to the issuance of passes to leave the camps---that white soldiers were allowed to go at will, while Negroes were refused permission to leave.

"Unfair treatment, ofttimes. brutality, on the part of Military Police.

"Inadequate provision for recreation.

"Unfair treatment, ofttimes brutality, on the part of Military Police. and denial of the enjoyment of privileges in the huts, where colored huts had not been provided.

"White non-commissioned officers over colored units, when the colored men were of a higher intellectual plane than the whites who commanded them.

"Lack of opportunity for educated Negroes to rise above non-commissioned officers in the Reserve Labor Battalions.

"Confinement to the guard house for long periods and compelled to pay heavy penalties for minor infractions of the rules of camp, or for disobedience of unreasonable commands.

"Frequently, lack of proper medical attention and treatment.

"Negro soldiers compelled to work at menial tasks, and denied sufficient drill work and not allowed training in manual of arms and denied an opportunity to fire a gun, in many instances.

"Insufficient number of Hostess Houses---especially in the earlier stages of the war. Insufficient number of chaplains in most camps, in earlier stages of the war. Never enough of either of these helpful agencies at any stage of the war.

"Slow discharge of colored men in labor battalions after the armistice.

"At more than one camp---Humphreys notably---colored men had practically no sanitary conveniences, bathing facilities, barracks, mess halls, Y. M. C. A. service, during the war period., until after white soldiers had left the station.

"Use of abusive language to the colored soldiers by white officers and calling them by opprobrious names.

"Working with civilians, soldiers getting $30 per month, and the civilian, doing identical work, getting from $3.50 to $5.00 per diem.

"Too many tent camps for Negroes, while whites are given barracks.

"Reluctance of white officers to recommend colored men for induction into the Officers' Training Camps.

"Men with venereal diseases not segregated in the matter of washing mess kits and general use of camp facilities from those not so infected.

"During winter of 1917-18, general complaint was made of insufficient clothing, shortage in supply of overcoats, inadequate bedding, and tents without flooring and ofttimes situated in wet places, where ice formed in winter and where mud and malaria flourished at other times. A statement came from Camp Alexander, Va., that during the winter of 1917-18 men died like sheep in their tents, it being a common occurrence to go around in the morning and drag men out frozen to death. It took a long time for this situation to get to the authorities, but when it did get to the proper officials, steps were taken to correct the trouble.

"Men pronounced unfit for overseas service, and often in cases where they were unfit for any kind of military duty, were kept at the camps and forced to work.

"Alleged essential labor required at many stations on Sundays.

"Made to work in rain and cursed when any dissatisfaction was shown. 'Gotten even with' by commanders if report was made of conditions to higher officers or to outsiders.

"Promise of officials to muster out first the men in tent camps not promptly kept.

"Passes refused colored men, even when messages of critical illness of parents or near relatives had been received."

The Camp Lee situation being of a piece with the conditions obtaining at most of the army stations where colored men were located, it may be dwelt upon at length to illustrate the plan of research and operation which was adopted to ameliorate the ills that were brought to the attention of the Special Assistant and laid before the Secretary of War, with suggestions and recommendations looking toward a speedy betterment.

Letters were sent to the War Department by the men and communications of the same tenor doubtless went outside to their friends. Telegrams and protests were received from representatives of several colored protective organizations, prominent ministers, leading editors, college heads, and men of affairs generally, and other communications sent to them were forwarded to me in Washington, asking that vigorous action be taken to assist in the unraveling of the problem confronting the men at Camp Lee. One very urgent letter was sent by the Governor of a State, intimating that he was confident that discriminations against colored soldiers were practiced at Camp Lee, but declared it to be his belief that this was without the knowledge of the War Department. "I respectfully request that you make an investigation of the situation there at the earliest possible moment," concluded the Governor. These very timely requests were most cheerfully complied with.

That an improved state of affairs was brought about at Camp Lee is evidenced by a report submitted to the Special Assistant under date of February 20, 1919, by Louis L. Watson, Jr., of 603 L Street, Southeast, Washington, D. C., formerly Captain of Infantry, United States Army, after an exhaustive inquiry, covering every phase of Army life at that point, in its relation to the treatment of the Negro and the opportunities afforded him.

Captain Watson, at the outset of his communication, refers to "the evolution of a somewhat equitable military regime, as far as the races are concerned," which has a decidedly hopeful ring, and which hope is given quite a considerable realization before his final paragraph is reached. Noting his observations as "a race man on the scene, seeking to correct the most flagrant violations of military law," and his purpose to "get things done," rather than to pile up dry statistics, Captain Watson concluded his introduction by saying: "The following recapitulation, however, is quite true in the large, and inclusive of camp improvements worked out in the last five months. I hope you may find it of value."


Captain Watson's "Recapitulation"

Said Captain Watson, in recapitulating the results that had been secured at Camp Lee in the five months of intensive. inquiry and practical reformatory effort:

"Until about the middle of July, 1918, there had been several colored officers at Camp Lee, but none had remained for more than twenty-four hours. Then came Lieut. Myron McAdoo, commissioned second lieutenant from the ranks of the 9th Ohio. He was assigned to the 13th Battalion Replacements Training Center to serve with white officers until the 15th of August, when five first lieutenants and three second lieutenants, colored, were assigned to the outfit---1st Lieuts. Allan Turner, Frank M. Goodner, Chas E. Roberts, G. Cleveland Morrow and Louis L. Watson, Jr., and 2nd Lieuts. Leonidas H. Hall, Joseph L. Johnson, Gloucester A. Price. Moreover, until this time there had been relatively few non-commissioned officers, colored, in the camp and a large percentage of these were corporals of little ability or promise. It was characteristic of white officers to ignore men of ability and to make non-commissioned officers of the illiterate funny fellows who could furnish entertainment for them in the orderly room with their antics and shameful ignorance. But what was even worse than this came the report that in other sections of the camp, where there were not even non-commissioned officers of this caliber, white officers were inflicting bodily punishment upon ignorant enlisted men of color. This of course is contrary to all military law and custom. As far as I know, however, none of this happened after the colored officers came to camp.

"The colored officers immediately launched a discreet educational campaign to combat this condition. Their presence alone did much to put a stop to this practice, but the fact that they used considerable tact in spreading knowledge of the law in such cases, did even more. It became apparent almost immediately that colored enlisted men were growing cognizant of their right to redress and the way to get it, and ill-treatment reduced itself to the personal factor entirely, which is not illegality so much as it is inefficiency in handling men, and not politic.

"At the same time the colored officers set out to get more noncommissioned officers worthy of their rank, by a careful selection and promotion of the men in the four companies of the battalion. This being the only combatant organization of colored men in the camp it took the lead in efficient colored non-commissioned officers. The efficiency of these men was highly commendable.

"In view of the prevalent antagonistic public sentiment against the rise of colored men in these parts the promotion of four colored First Lieutenants to Captaincy on the 10th of September, 1918, and their subsequent assignment to the command of the companies of the Battalion with a commissioned personnel of an average of ten white first and second lieutenants, including the former company commanders, is nothing short of marvelous. I shall not recount in detail your work in bringing this condition about except to say that your investigation in this matter alone proved to officials in the camp that colored men could get a hearing in the War Department, and it would not be good policy to violate the integrity of their office with prejudicial treatment of colored officers and enlisted men under their command. The Battalion had on an average of forty white first and second lieutenants serving in companies under colored captains. These officers were from almost all walks of life. Among them were a lawyer and school teacher from Alabama, a light-weight pugilist from Louisiana, an owner of orange groves from Florida, a ranchman from Texas, a coalmine owner formerly from Virginia, and several stockbrokers, contractors, electrical engineers, merchants, graduate and undergraduate students of the large Eastern and Western Universities, as well as two "movie" actors, one principal of a Pennsylvania high school, and the son of a classmate of the great Gen. Joffre. Most of these officers were originally from the South.

"Of the company commanders, one had done twenty-four years and another eleven years in the Regular Army, while the other two were from civil life, one a graduate from Massachusetts State College and the other a graduate of Howard University. The Battalion Commander was a criminal lawyer with a large practice in Shreveport, Louisiana. All worked together and made the Battalion the most efficient and the most praised organization in all the Replacements Camp. There was no hesitancy on the part of the commanding officer to point to the 13th Battalion as an example in drill, parade, and administration.

"When the 13th Battalion was completely demobilized and I was attached to the 1st Development Battalion I had the opportunity to observe the working of organizations of colored enlisted personnel under the command of white officers. I found this organization, in contrast to the 13th Battalion which I had just left, to be poorly disciplined and overburdened with complaints concerning mess. Regulations were wholly ignored where punishments were concerned and general dissatisfaction was spread over the entire outfit. The morale was very low among the enlisted men and the officers unconcerned. From my observations this condition appeared inexcusable.

"I will conclude this resumé with a statement of several definite and unbiased convictions growing out of my experience and observations:

"(1) Colored officers show marked superiority over white officers of the same grade.

"(2) A mixed organization of both white and colored officers is a very efficient machine and works out to perfection from a purely military point of view because a man's race pride will not allow him to neglect his duty and thus bring down criticism from officers of the other race. Each tries to excel.

" (3) Wherever it is possible colored troops should have colored officers. There is no doubt that the interests of our troops are better conserved by colored officers.

" (4) Your eagerness to correct evils in the camp and your effective work in this regard have done more than any other single factor to make life tolerable for colored officers and enlisted men here. Assuming conditions at this camp to be the average in Southern cantonments such an office as yours held by a man of the race is indispensable to the welfare of the colored soldier.

Very respectfully,

(Signed) Louis L. WATSON, JR.,
Formerly Capt. Inf. U. S. A.


Help for Colored Draftees

The National Medical Association, under the active leadership of Dr. George E. Cannon, of Jersey City; Dr. A. Al. Curtis, of Washington, D. C.; Dr. A. M. Brown, of Birmingham, Alabama; Dr. E. T. Belsaw, of Mobile, Alabama; Dr. M. O. Dumas, of Washington, D. C., and Dr. W. G. Alexander, of Orange, New Jersey, exerted a helpful interest in the welfare of the medical men drawn in the draft. The Special Assistant took up the cases of many colored doctors who had been drafted and assigned to service battalions or as mere privates in the infantry organizations, with a view of having them transferred to the Medical Corps, where they might render a more effective service to their country along the line of their professional equipment.

Another investigation, which may properly find a place in this chapter on the treatment of colored soldiers in the camps, is that which resulted in the admission of colored draftees, regardless of the time of their call, into the training schools for officers. The number permitted to enter at the outset was unusually small, and these were restricted to draftees who had been conscripted prior to January 5, 1918. The number recommended by their camp commanders was not at all commensurate with the abilities of the men who desired to take advantage of the Government's plan of developing officer material, and was reported to be so niggardly as to amount almost to an ignoring of the explicit order of the Secretary of War that no form of injustice or discrimination be practiced against any soldier because of race or color. There were also persistent rumors that an attempt was being made to promote white non-commissioned officers in Negro units to commissioned officers, which could have no other result than to fill all of the line-officer places with white men and make it impossible for a Negro non-commissioned officer, no matter how efficient or how intelligent he might be, to rise above that rank. Another flood of protests came into the War Department from colored men in the army and from colored people everywhere. Those in authority were apprised of the unrest that existed. The Secretary of War gave orders that ample provision be made for the induction of properly qualified colored men into the Officers' Training Schools. In the end, training camps for colored candidates for officers' commissions were made available at Camp Taylor for field artillery; at Camp Pike for infantry, and at Camp Hancock for machine gun training.


Illustrations in Chapter IX

The Case of Lieutenant Tribbett

An instance of the workings of race prejudice, in its relation to colored officers, was found in the case of Lieutenant Charles A. Tribbett.

Lieutenant Tribbett was from New Haven, Conn., and was graduated from the Officers' Training Camp at Des Moines, Iowa, and assigned to duty with colored troops at Camp Upton, Yaphank, Long Island. While on that duty, the records of the War Department show that he was ordered to proceed by the usual means of transportation to the army post at Fort Sill, Okla., for instruction in aviation. When the train on which he was traveling stopped at a station near Chickasha, Okla., it was boarded by a sheriff and party, who arrested Tribbett, who was in regulation military uniform, for riding in a car with white people. In spite of his protest that he was an officer of the United States Army, traveling under orders, on Government business, he was forcibly removed from the car and imprisoned in the county jail, and subsequently fined. Following an appeal to the War Department, Tribbett was released and permitted to resume his journey to Fort Sill, where he resumed his military duties.

The matter was brought to the attention of the War Department by Mr. George W. Crawford, of New Haven, Conn., and Mr. Robert L. Fortune, of Chickasha, Okla., who protested against the mistreatment to which Lieutenant Tribbett had been subjected. These well-posted attorneys set up the contention that as an interstate passenger, traveling under orders on Government business, he was not subject to the jurisdiction of the State authorities, and gave notice that they would exhaust every resource to gain adequate redress for their client.

The case was cited for investigation by the Department of Justice, and is still pending. Here was a flagrant instance of injustice to an officer of the United States Army, in the full uniform of the military service, on Government business and traveling on a road under Government supervision. From every viewpoint it was a case for Federal intervention. All the available evidence seemed to indicate that the arrest of Lieutenant Tribbett was an inexcusable usurpation of authority on the part of the civil officials of the State of Oklahoma, and for this reason the Special Assistant to the Secretary of War felt warranted in urging that the whole matter go to the Department of Justice for adjudication by the Federal Government. General Ansell, Acting Judge Advocate General, who has conducted a campaign against the army system. of court-martial as being "unfair," did not move to have the case of Lieutenant Tribbett pressed on its merits, and therefore nothing officially has been done.


Treatment of Colored Soldiers Overseas

An important matter, in connection with the treatment of colored soldiers in the camps, which ought not to pass without mention, was the suggestion made by the Special Assistant to Mr. George Creel, Director of the Committee on Public Information, looking to an investigation of conditions among colored soldiers in France. The morale of the colored people in America, was noticeably lowered by ugly rumors that came by devious and winding ways from abroad, and the Special Assistant thought it worth while to have a commission named, made up of representative men, in whom. the masses had implicit confidence, to give this situation a searching investigation and make a full report thereon, to set at rest the uneasiness and anxiety that was alarmingly prevalent toward the end of the summer of 1918. The mails and cables were congested, and for weeks and weeks not a word could be had by relatives at home from their loved ones battling for freedom and democracy across the seas. The following letter addressed to Mr. Creel more fully explains the motive which prompted the Special Assistant to offer the suggestion that a special inquiry be made and the remedy be applied:

Washington, D. C., August 10, 1918.

Dear Mr. Creel:

Recently in a conference with the head of the Military Intelligence Bureau, the matter was discussed of having two or three representative colored men go to France for the purpose of making an investigation of the facts with respect to several matters indicated herein.

1. A military man who is qualified to make a free and full investigation of the general treatment being accorded colored troops on the French and other fronts. There has been, and still continues, considerable propaganda and rumor to the effect that colored soldiers are being mistreated and discriminated against. Letters have come to the Office of the Secretary of War and to me, the same being forwarded by United States Senators in some instances, etc., to the War Department conveying these complaints. The information which would be secured first-hand by the military man suggested would be (under such direction as you might approve) conveyed to the Negro people of the United States through the Negro newspapers, public meetings, public speakers, the Committee of One Hundred of the Public Speaking Division, etc.

2. Two other representatives, not necessarily military men, but of sound judgment, capable of studying the facts and cooperating with the military representative, above referred to, in making a full report of existing conditions abroad with respect to colored men at the front as well as those behind the lines (referring to service battalions, stevedore regiments, etc.).

The joint testimony of these men would satisfactorily establish the facts and enable us to do a good piece of work in disposing of these damaging rumors which are being continually circulated.

In this connection, I wish to state that, at a meeting held in New York City, Monday, August 5th, attended by officials of the Federated Council of Churches, by a representative of the Surgeon General's Office, a representative of the Military Intelligence Bureau, Mr. George Foster Peabody (the well-known New York philanthropist) and others, including the undersigned---the same suggestion was made that a commission of colored men in whom they have confidence be sent abroad for the purpose of studying the situation above indicated, and the matter was broached by Mr. Henry A. Atkinson, of the, National Committee on Churches and Moral Aims of the War, of New York City, who expressed the opinion that it would be highly desirable for the Government to take the initiative in this matter.

There is more depressed morale among the colored people than is generally supposed, due to stories of unfair treatment of colored men in various camps in America as well as abroad. Under the circumstances, I am quite seriously of the opinion that such a commission as herein suggested would accomplish very great good.

An interview with you, at your convenience, would be very much appreciated. Will you kindly let me hear from you directly or through Mr. Byoir, Associate Chairman.

Sincerely yours,

Office of the Secretary of War.

The proposal outlined in the above letter was given serious consideration by Mr. Creel, by the Morale Branch of the War Department, and by a number of officials of the War Department who readily recognized the gravity of the situation which confronted them, with reference to the attitude of the Negro mind of the nation on this matter of the treatment of colored soldiers overseas. There is strong ground for the belief that some steps of the nature suggested would have been taken by the authorities in charge of war operations had not the conflict come to an abrupt end in November, 1918, many months earlier than even the initiated dared to hope for.

It is not without the range of probability that the movement, already set in motion by the Conference of Negro Editors and Leaders in the preceding summer, to send to France a competent representative of the Negro press, to report accurately and fully the activities and conditions of the colored troops, received a positive impetus by the letter to Mr. Creel. Action to relieve the tension referred to, was apparently "speeded up." Within a month after this suggestion that a commission be appointed to inquire into what the colored troops were actually doing on the battlefields across the water, Mr. Ralph W. Tyler, an experienced newspaper man of the race, was on his way to France as the accredited representative of the Committee on Public Information, commissioned as a war correspondent on the staff of General Pershing, and directed to chronicle the labors and achievements of the colored soldiers. Later Dr. Robert Russa Moton, Principal of Tuskegee Institute, as told elsewhere, was delegated by the President of the United States and the Secretary of War to go to France on a special mission, which had in mind the promotion of the welfare of the colored troops, and the maintenance of the morale of the Negro people in this country, by taking them fully into the confidence of the Government on all matters relating to their sons who had gone abroad to risk their lives in defense of the Stars and Stripes.

Chapter X. The Negro Soldiers of France and England

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