Blogs > HNN > Donna M. DeBlasio, Review of Adriane Lentz-Smith's "Freedom Struggles: African Americans in the First World War" (Harvard University Press, 2009)

Aug 8, 2010 10:54 pm

Donna M. DeBlasio, Review of Adriane Lentz-Smith's "Freedom Struggles: African Americans in the First World War" (Harvard University Press, 2009)

[Donna M. DeBlasio is associate professor of history and applied history at Youngstown State University]

Who or what determines American citizenship? By the same token, what are the responsibilities, rights and privileges of American citizenship? Despite Constitutional guarantees, the elite powers have tried to limit exactly who can call themselves “American citizens.” The most glaring example is the treatment of African Americans, who were subjected to the most blatant disregard of their basic civil rights, despite the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment making them citizens of the United States.

When the United States entered the Great War in 1917 and instituted a draft, many African Americans saw service to their country as a means of gaining respect and, more importantly, recognition of their rights as American citizens. What they discovered, according to Adriane Lentz-Smith in her revealing book, Freedom Struggles: African Americans in the First World War, was just the opposite. President Woodrow Wilson’s proud declaration that the United States would make the world “safe for democracy” did not extend to persons of color, especially those in his native land. Wearing the American uniform did little for African American civil rights—not when Jim Crow travelled with the armed forces to Europe and back home again. Indeed, the soldiers and other African Americans like YMCA workers and nurses who went to France found that racism was deeply ingrained among their fellow white Americans. The harsh realities and experiences of African Americans in this first world conflict did, however, sow the seeds of the Civil Rights movement thirty years later.

Lentz-Smith views the experiences of African Americans through the prism of the experiences of a variety of men and women. While men who served in the armed forces dominate the story, she also includes women like Kathryn Johnson, a college educated activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who went to France on behalf of the YMCA with two other African American women, Addie Waites Hunton and Helen Curtis. Johnson articulated the view that the true prize for her people was civic equality, and like soldier Ely Green, she believed “that manhood and nationhood were intertwined.” The intersections of nationhood, masculinity and civil rights for many African Americans arose from their experiences in the war.

From the beginning of American involvement in the war, it was clear that including African Americans in the armed forces would exacerbate rather than ameliorate Jim Crow racism. The 1917 riot in Houston, Texas was emblematic of the brewing hostilities between the two races. The arrival of the 24th Infantry’s Third Battalion, a group of veteran African American army regulars, in Houston in July, 1917, brought to that city “ more seasoned, more traveled” African Americans than “Houston had ever seen before.” The presence of this elite, privileged group of African Americans scared the local white population, especially since the civilian authorities had no control over what happened on a military base. The frequent comings and goings of black women on the base also alarmed the white citizenry, who would later point the blame at the women as the underlying cause of the riot. Part mutiny, part race riot, and part revolt, as the author states, Houston was the poster child for racial tensions arising from the presence of African American soldiers. In fact, Houston was only one of the cities which saw racial violence that summer of 1917. Memphis, Tennessee; East St. Louis, Illinois; Chester, Pennsylvania; and Newark, New Jersey all seethed with rioting as well. The African American soldiers did not have to go to the battlefields to face life threatening situations.

Once the soldiers arrived in Europe, their hopes and dreams for equality went with them, only to be dashed in the face of racism--or as the author states, “God might have made all men interdependent, but the Army made some more subject than others.” Indeed, African American soldiers were usually given the most dangerous, difficult, nasty jobs, especially on the docks. Their treatment was appalling, working long hours with little rest or even proper nourishment. While the African American experience varied, their stories “contributed to a cohesive picture of the disaffection that would radicalize a generation of African American men.”

At the same time, African American soldiers did have the opportunity to meet white Europeans as well as military personnel from Africa. These encounters broadened their horizons, what Sergeant Christopher Columbus Watts referred to as “the world’s experience.” France provided exposure to a different place, where their universe could expand beyond the borders of Jim Crow America. Not only that, encounters with African soldiers also served to expand perspectives, and engendered in many African Americans a kinship with and understanding of persons of color around the world. Intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois posited the international nature of racial politics long before the war. Other leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Charles Owen, furthered the call for solidarity among the black race across international borders. While nowhere near as militant as Marcus Garvey, these men expounded a world view of their people and a need to join together to combat racism whether in Jim Crow America or in colonial Africa or wherever such ignorance abounded. As Lentz-Smith points out, while many African Americans were not yet conscious of the concept of the African Diaspora, this nascent internationalism would be important to budding civil rights activists in post-World War I America.

When the African American soldiers came marching home in 1918, they did not find a better nation. If anything, the presence of so many trained military personnel who happened to be black only hardened racial lines and intensified Jim Crow. The summer of 1919 was filled with race riots in cities North and South. The hopes that many African Americans had of making their homeland accountable for its high minded rhetoric about liberty and equality for all were dashed in a reinvigoration of racism symbolized by the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan. Lentz-Smith uses the murder trial of Sergeant Edgar Caldwell to point up the insidious influence of Jim Crow all the way up to the Federal government. At the time Caldwell was accused of murdering a street car conductor in Anniston, Alabama, he was still in the service. Throughout the course of his trial, the defense insisted that he could not be tried in a civilian court because he was still in the military. Although condemned to death, Caldwell’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, a former slaveholder, wrote the majority decision against the soldier. Caldwell was eventually executed, but the solidarity his trials engendered, including donations from African Americans around the country, did point to a growing racial cohesion among blacks and a determination to fight for equal justice.

World War I proved to be integral in nurturing the calls for civil rights in the United States. In Freedom Struggles Adriane Lentz-Smith has offered readers an intelligent argument of the impact of that conflict on African Americans of that generation. These men and women learned from their experiences in the Great War, which prepared them for World War II and the Civil Rights movement. They claimed their American citizenship with all that it means.

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