Blacks in the Military 1914-1936

With America’s entrance into World War I the military needs drained manpower from Northern industries. Increasing job vacancies enticed more black migrants to urban industrial centers, and for the first time, substantial numbers of black women held industrial jobs. Thousands of black women worked in industrial plants producing goods for the war effort and for a growing domestic consumer market. Most appreciated the higher pay and greater autonomy compared to domestic work. As black communities in the North grew, so did opportunities for blacks, more of whom became politicians, newspaper publishers, real estate brokers, insurance agents, lawyers, and teachers, serving the black communities.

African Americans also went to war; approximately 400,000 black soldiers served in the armed forces. Over half of the African American men who served in the war were stationed in France. They served in segregated units, and most were assigned as cooks, laborers, cargo handlers, or to other non-combat support positions, but some black regiments saw extensive combat duty. Some black regiments were recognized for their achievements; the entire 369th regiment—along with some members of the 370th, 371st, and 372nd regiments—was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France for distinguished service.

Despite their demonstrated military proficiency and bravery, black soldiers were insulted and harassed by white soldiers. Some American military officials attempted to establish the Jim Crow system in France. General John Pershing, commander of the Allied forces, issued a document called ‘Secret Information Concerning the Black American Troops.” This document warned French military leaders against treating black soldiers as equals, but French people were unconcerned about such American practices and often welcomed black soldiers as heroes.
Most black leaders supported America’s involvement in the war, but not all agreed. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph and socialist Chandler Owen vigorously opposed World War I and were sentenced to over two years in jail for publishing their views. Leaders were united, however, in the view that blacks’ wartime sacrifices entitled them to first-class citizenship. At the end of the war, African Americans were determined to demand respect from the nation for which they had fought.

As African American veterans returned home, white opposition to wartime gains intensified. In 1917 a white mob invaded the black community in East Saint Louis, Illinois, and killed hundreds of African Americans. During the same year, the U.S. Army summarily court-martialed a group of black soldiers and hanged 13 without the benefit of an appeal after a black battalion rioted in reaction to white harassment in Houston, Texas. After the war, many black soldiers in uniform were attacked or killed by whites attempting to enforce racial domination. During the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919, anti-black riots occurred in scores of cities including Longview, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago, Illinois. These attacks continued into the 1920s and made African Americans even more determined to militantly defend their rights.

College-educated blacks were still few in number, but they generally provided articulate political and cultural leadership. Black leaders were united in believing that blacks’ wartime sacrifices entitled them to first-class citizenship. Younger African Americans exemplified a militant “New Negro” who demanded respect and full equality from America and refused to take no for an answer.

The most popular militant black leader during this period was a Jamaican immigrant named Marcus Garvey who established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an international organization, in 1914. The UNIA had two to four million members at its height. Garvey was an outspoken critic of racial injustice, who appealed to black pride and identified with black working classes and the poor. His public appearances in New York’s Madison Square Garden and elsewhere attracted tens of thousands of people.

Garvey was also highly critical of what he considered elitist middle class black leadership. He was particularly opposed to the integrated NAACP and to W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of its Crisis magazine. In return, black civil rights leaders sharply criticized Garvey. His popularity and militancy also led to his surveillance by the U.S. government. In 1922 Garvey was arrested for mail fraud in connection with a steamship line he had established to pursue trade with Africa. His subsequent conviction and imprisonment, and his deportation in 1927, sent the UNIA into rapid decline.

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