Wednesday, October 24, 2018

African American Soldiers in World War I

Program for Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wednesday, October 24, 2018.  (vice Oct. 31):  African American Warriors and their place in American History. From the American Revolution, during the Civil War to Korean War. E.g.: Contraband to Massachusetts 54th, Buffalo Soldiers and Native American Wars, Spanish American War and Truth about Battle of San Juan Hill, World War I and use of African American soldiers with French combat troops, World War II and Segregated all African American combat units: Armor, Transport, Tuskegee Airmen, Desegregation and Korean War.  [Suggested by William Tobin]

Lentz-Smith, Adriane Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Paperback – August 15, 2011

            The narrative of this story washes over you, the harsh reality of the treatment of African-Americans in America, in 1860, before emancipation, in 1890, in 1917, the focal area of this book, and in 2018.
            As a white male who grew up in segregated southeast Texas, I’ve seen the suspicion, disregard, fear and condescension toward blacks. I’ve seen the rabid hatred and mistreatment of blacks by what we called “poor white trash”.  And I’ve seen the mistreatment or at best, looking the other way, by the rest of us.
            As a 14-year-old in 1948, I took a Greyhound bus trip from Texas to Virginia, alone, to spend the summer with an aunt on her mink ranch.  Then I continued to Baltimore, to spend time with another aunt. Finally, I crossed the Mason-Dixon line into New York, to spend a little time with yet another aunt.
            In the north, it was easy to understand the huge migration of African-Americans from the south after World Wars I and II. Blacks didn’t have to sit in the back of the bus; they could drink from any water fountain and use any public restroom. But, still, even in the north, I could see things were different for blacks, and Adriane Lentz-Smith’s book shows me that I didn’t see even a small percentage of the real picture!
            The way white Americans thought about blacks, the way they acted toward them, in the years leading up to the War of 1917-18 was far worse than most white Americans today can imagine, and it is tragic that there is so much of the stench of white supremacy today.
            For African-American males before and during World War I, the appeal of joining the United States Army was strong, even though you were serving in an all-black cavalry or infantry unit with white officers, and there was always the feeling among Army leaders that perhaps you shouldn’t let blacks be engaged in real contact with the enemy, because these soldiers might gain experience that they would bring back home and cause trouble in civilian life. And then there was always the feeling that black soldiers might be cowardly in combat.
            The Army had employed four black regiments during the latter years of the 19th century in the Philippines, the Caribbean and in Mexico and the southwest. Most black soldiers were assigned to non-combat activities. However, many thousands of African Americans, through their Army service, had done and seen a world far beyond the Jim Crow world of black civilians.
            Several states had formed black National Guard units with black officers to fight in the Spanish-American war and the skirmishes with Pancho Villa along the Mexican border, but these had been disbanded. Only the 11th Illinois Regiment could boast of two decades of service with a full roster of black officers before World War I.
            Houston. August 24, 1917. There are many race riots in American history, but this one stands out. The Army had moved the African-American 24th Infantry from New Mexico to heavily segregated Houston to build up Camp Logan there in preparation for American participation in World War I. Black troops were restricted in their liberty to only one part of Houston. Houston police were very suspicious of blacks in general and looked upon these soldiers as troublemakers. An incident arose in the black San Felipe section of Houston involving the arrest of a black female. Black soldiers spoke up in her defense, which aroused the ire of a Houston policeman, who pistol-whipped the black soldiers. Then three black female school teachers were arrested for ‘prostitution”. It appears that these respectable women were arrested out of police anger at “biggety women”.  Black soldiers rushed to their defense and they were beaten by police.
            On the night of August 23, 1917 soldiers in the Camp got word that a mob of angry whites was headed to the Camp. Whether there was ever such a mob is questionable, but it was a dark, rainy night, and many of the black troops stormed the camp armory and grabbed weapons, over the opposition of their seven white officers. They raced out of the camp gate, and in the confusion began shooting at each other. A full-scale mutiny was on. Soldiers marched to San Felipe, and in a two-hour melee, 17 whites were killed, 11 injured, and two of their number lay dying. Among the whites killed was one of the policemen who attacked the black female teachers, but many were simply bystanders.
            How anyone recorded this event depended upon what color you were. However, in the end, 13 mutineers were given a quick court martial and hanged, quietly. Another 47 were given life sentences, and 27 lesser sentences. Later, another 11 were sentenced to death but President Wilson commuted ten of those sentences to life imprisonment.  

            Author Lentz-Smith used several African-Americans to tell her story. Kathryn Johnson was a young black woman from Ohio who graduated from Wilberforce College and went south where she discovered white supremacy in full bloom. When black Americans were being sent to Europe to fight in 1917 she and a friend got the YMCA to send them to France as volunteers to serve as stewards of black men’s conduct, character and culture there. Johnson came home after the war, committed to fight for the rights of blacks. Faced with segregation aboard the steamer returning home, she renewed her dedication to a life of striving for the rights of “dark people”. She became a strong voice in fighting for racial equality in the NAACP.

            Ely Green was a grammar-school dropout from Waxahachie, Texas who joined the Army because it offered him an opportunity “to become a man”. In the summer of 1917 he traveled north to Chicago, a path many blacks were following then. What he saw was many young blacks caught up in a life where they wished the week was “nine days long, and every day Sunday.” A life of making money and spending it and doing as little as possible.  It was not for Ely.
            I must confess that this image of lazy black males and hard-working, conscientious, church-going black females was the image I gathered when we lived near the District of Columbia in the early 1960s, and again in the late 1980s. I wish that I had seen more men like Ely Green.
            However, with Ely there was another outcome. He befriended a “Wobbly”, a member of the communist-leaning International Workers of the World and sampled the heady wine of revolutionary thought that flowed during and after the 1918 October Revolution that brought the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to life.  Quite a few black Americans got lured into this, but eventually many discovered that the communists were just as racist as capitalist whites.

            As the Army was preparing for World War I they formed industrial training detachments at colleges, to prepare men for the Army by teaching them skills that would them better soldiers. Thanks to a former associate of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, the Army included several black colleges in this program. In the eyes of some this advanced the achievements and opportunities of many black Americans and was “one of the greatest social triumphs of the war.”

            Sgt. Edgar Caldwell. A black non-commissioned officer, on a rare day off from a brutal work detail, was traveling on a trolley in Anniston, Alabama when a young white conductor accosted him, beat him, kicked him off the car, and was about to strike him with a large metal rod when Caldwell pulled a pistol out and shot him, killing him and wounding an associate. (12-15-1918) Lentz-Smith devotes many pages to this case, which revolved around the question of whether Caldwell should be tried by the State of Alabama or the Army. The case went to the Supreme Court, but in the end, he was sentenced to be hung, and died on July 30, 1920.

            The African Americans who went to France saw a new, different world. Although the white majority of the Army sought to keep Jim Crow alive and blacks “in their place”, black soldiers experienced a world quiet unlike back home. They encountered French women who were often intrigued with them.
            Their leaders both black and white lectured them about sexually-transmitted diseases, and there were many occasions of infection, but both by their experiences in combat and their exposure to French citizens, African Americans’ eyes were opened.  And as their eyes were opened, white soldiers, both officers and enlisted, often feared that blacks returning home would feel empowered to upset the status quo of white supremacy.
            President Wilson arranged to have Dr. Robert Moton, the president of Tuskegee Institute after Booker T. Washington, sail to Europe and lecture to black troops in numerous bases, to encourage them to return home humble, polite, “like good Negroes.” Against claims that black soldiers “failed” in combat and raped white women, Moton urged them to shed characteristics like laziness, shiftlessness and willfulness as he sought to “domesticate” these soldiers.
            Lentz-Smith is clearly disappointed with Woodrow Wilson as a died-in-the-wool southerner who had no intention of speaking up for racial equality. In fact, in the long time Wilson spent at the Versailles peace negotiations, Wilson never spoke up for the rights of Africans in Africa and caved in to the colonial wishes of the British and French in seizing former German colonies.
            The author gives us the other side, too.  She tells about the savvy, world-wise black soldiers of the 11th Illinois National Guard who ride a troop train south to Camp Logan in Houston n the aftermath of the mutiny there.  As they stop at towns in the south along the railroad, they do plenty of mischief, yelling and cursing at white southerners, insulting them, taunting them, saying what they’re going to do with their wives, and barging into local shops and stealing and carrying away food and drinks and spreading trash in their wake.  One can say, “Well, the white supremacists started it!” Like the killing of innocent bystanders in the Houston mutiny, the behavior of the African Americans did not contribute to any racial harmony.

            Black soldiers who served in World War II, whether they went overseas or not, were exposed to a world wider than most had experienced in the Jim Crow South, and even in the subtler segregation in the North. Even though many whites fought desperately to undo the small freedoms black soldiers had won, the trend toward achieving true racial equality was happening. The main problem, however, is that a century later, even after having had our first black President govern for eight years, we have millions of white Americans who are still not willing to acknowledge racial equality.



Wednesday, November 28, 2018: Guns in American History. E.g. American Revolution and the Minutemen; Going West with new technology: six guns, repeating rifles, Twentieth Century automatic weapons after World War I: pistols, rifles, Tommy guns, The St. Valentine’s Massacres of 1929 and 2018. Control vs. freedom of gun use. and Machine Gun laws, mass shootings in America: rifles, pistols, military style weapons, Guns laws in 21st century America. [Suggested by William Tobin]

December 2018: No meeting.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019: Horses in History. The clattering of hooves pierced the dark stillness of the Austrian night. It is the fall of 1855. The gilded Ambruster Dress Carriage, a beautiful vehicle trimmed in glimmering black paint and shiny gold leaf showed that Emperor Franz Joseph was arriving. Read any book about horses, from Caligula to Triple Crown, from Richard III to Pony Express, from mythology (Pegasus) to literature (Arabian Nights) or music (Von SuppĂ©’s Light Cavalry Overture), from battle tactics (Genghis Kahn, Templars, conquistadors, light cavalry of Napoleon) to transportation and military logistics, from money making business of breeding to prestige and rivalry of kings and sheikhs, from fundamental needs in agriculture to the vanity of Derby fashion. [Suggested by Janos Posfai]

Wednesday, February 27, 2019: Medical Discoveries in History. Germs, Anesthesia, Inoculations against Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Polio; Birth Control; Mental Illness, X-Ray Insulin, Pasteurization, Penicillin.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019: Intelligence Gathering and Spying in History: Julius Caesar’s Spy Network; Sun-Tzu, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Espionage Act of 1917, the KGB, MI-5, the OSS, CIA, Pinkerton’s Union Spies, Confederate Spies.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019: From Fur Trappers to Fishermen to Settlers: How Montréal began; Plymouth; Salem; Gloucester; New Amsterdam; The early colonization of America.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019: Progressive America in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century: Teddy Roosevelt and the Robber Barons; Woodrow Wilson and World War I.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019: Westward Ho: the westward expansion of America; Manifest Destiny; The Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark; James K. Polk; The Union Pacific.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019: The Crusades—what caused them? The Seljuk Turks; Pisa, Genoa, Venice and Amalfi; Byzantium and Jerusalem; The Children’s Crusade; Attacking the Jews in Germany; The Popes and Kings; Saladin and Richard I of the Lion Heart; how the Christians massacred Moslems and Jews and made Moslems intolerant.