Category: african-american

Racist Violence in Washington

A handful of riders from the 3rd Cavalry arriving in Washington, likely on Tuesday the 22nd.

July 19 1919, Washington–On Friday July 18, a nineteen-year old female employee of the Bureau of Engraving claimed that two black men ran into her on the street and attempted to take her umbrella; she quickly ran away and police quickly arrested a suspect.  When, late on the 19th, that suspect was released due to lack of evidence, white servicemen (who were especially livid as the woman was married to a naval aviator) began to riot, attacking black passersby, and driving through black neighborhoods in “terror cars”, shooting indiscriminately out the windows.

Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels (from North Carolina) took no action against the sailors.  Assistant Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though he apparently “wish[ed] quicker action had been taken to stop” the violence, was soon joking about it, telling a Harvard classmate “With your experience in handling Africans in Arkansas, I think you had better come up here and take charge of the police force.” As violence continued over the subsequent days, the military (which could have stepped in at any time in the Federal district, which at the time had little self-rule) did nothing.  Daniels urged calm, while Secretary of War Baker claimed to have little authority over the situation as many of the rioting men had been recently discharged from the armed services.  Wilson had left the city for a brief vacation late on the 19th, and the District Commissioner (a Wilson appointee) refused to ask for military assistance.

Rioting continued over the next two days.  On Monday, black residents began to fight back, a departure from previous outbreaks of racial violence.  A terror car strafed the Navy Hospital before it was stopped and its occupants arrested.  A black teenager, Carrie Maine Johnson, shot and killed a police officer who broke down the door to her bedroom when searching for a likely non-existent sniper.  William Laney shot into a would-be lynch mob that was pursuing him, killing one; he would be charged with manslaughter and falsely accused of being a violent revolutionary.  Thurgood Marshall later recounted the travails of his father, Willie, who was particularly light-skinned: “The Negroes would run one place, the white folks were running the other.  So he was running back and forth.  Wherever he went, he was wrong.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Wilson (who had called his vacation short due to a case of dysentery) decided to send in over 2000 troops (and a few tanks from Fort Meade) to restore order in the District.  While there was still some violence (and at least one death) that night, the mobs were stopped, and the city was quiet the next day.  Over the four days of violence, at least seven people were killed and hundreds injured.

The Black reaction to the violence in Washington was, in some quarters at least, surprisingly upbeat.  William Trotter, president of the Equal Rights League, returned to the US in late July after a secret visit to France to investigate how African-American soldiers were being treated there.  On July 27, he told a crowd: “We believe that self-preservation is the first law of nature.  Unless the white American behaves, he will find that in teaching our boys to fight for him he was starting something that he will not be able to stop.”

Sources include: Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer

The Lost Battalion

Cher Ami, the pigeon whose last flight stopped the American bombardment of their own Lost Battalion.  She received the Croix de Guerre for her efforts, though she would ultimately die of her wounds the next year.

October 2 1918, Charlevaux–After four days of fighting in the Meuse-Argonne sector, the American First Army had been badly mauled.  They had gained most of the first day’s objectives, but at high cost, and the failure to take Montfaucon early meant the Germans were able to reinforce the sector and even launch limited counterattacks.  Late on September 29, Pershing called a stop to the offensive, though he couched it as subtly as possible: “The American First Army will continue the attack on further orders.”

Despite this, the attack did continue on the extreme left of the First Army. On October 2, an American detachment of seven companies from the 77th Division took Hill 198.  However, German counterattacks and poor coordination with the French to their left meant they were quickly cut off.  Confusingly, the French unit on their immediate left was actually comprised of Americans–the 368th Regiment, a unit of black soldiers under white officers that, like many other black units, had been subordinated into the French chain of command.  Whether distrust of the black troops by the 77th Division led to the poor communications is unclear, but it is known that the 368th Regiment’s white officers’ lack of respect for their troops caused severe issues for the fighting effectiveness of the unit, ultimately putting their fellow countrymen in the 77th Division in danger.

On the night of October 2, 550 men of the 77th Division were surrounded by the Germans on Hill 198.  Quickly deemed the “Lost Battalion,” they would suffer greatly over the next few days; over 300 were killed or taken prisoner.  Water quickly became a major problem, with the only nearby source well-covered by German snipers.  Furthermore, they were bombarded by their own artillery, and the only form of communication they had left was carrier pigeon (many of which were shot down by the Germans).  Their very last carrier pigeon was able to convey a message with their exact coordinates to headquarters twenty five miles away (despite being wounded in flight), and the bombardment stopped.  The survivors would be rescued after another American offensive on October 7-8.

Today in 1917: Socialists Defeated in Finnish Elections

Today in 1916: Romanians Briefly Cross the Danube
Today in 1915: German Expedition Reaches Kabul
Today in 1914: Belgian Government’s Plan To Abandon Antwerp Worries Britain

Sources include: Andrew Carroll, My Fellow Soldiers; Gene Fax, With Their Bare Hands.

369th US Infantry Regiment Begins Front-Line S…


Men of the 369th US Infantry Regiment after entering French service; note the French-issued helmets.

April 8 1918, Auve–General Pershing had insisted on keeping the American Expeditionary Force together as a distinct American fighting force.  This was increasingly difficult to demand with the German offensive on the Western Front, especially since American forces in France were not yet large enough to conduct independent operations.  The French and British needed troops now, and Pershing could do little with most of his troops except relieve the French in quiet sectors.  

Pershing’s insistence on keeping all American forces together did not, however, extend to the black troops in the segregated US Army.  Among them were the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment in March.  Although Pershing presumably had no problem with black soldiers per se (his nickname, “Black Jack,” coming from his command of black troops in the 1890s), the question of how to use black troops in the front lines, where they would have to rely on the full cooperation of white units on either side, was a difficult one. Hamilton Fish III, a New York patrician, served as one of the regiment’s white officers, wrote: 

The French were crying out for U.S. regiments to go into the French Army.  So I guess Pershing figured he could kill two birds with one stone–solve the problem on what to do with us and give something to Foch.  From then on we spent our entire service in the French Army.  Oh officially we were still the 369th U.S. Infantry, but to all intent and purposes we were francais.

Noble Sissle, serving in the regiment’s band, recalled:

We were fully equipped with French rifles and French helmets.  Our wagons, our rations, our machine guns and everything pertaining to the equipment of the regiment for trench warfare was supplied by the French Army.

While they were perturbed that their own army had essentially abandoned them, service with the French had its advantages.  French troops were far less racist than the Americans, especially after having served alongside African troops for the past several years.  The transfer also meant they would be serving in combat, as they had hoped, not on labor duty (the fate of many of their black comrades in the US Army).  On April 8, the 369th began to move into the front lines on the Aisne, ready to serve. at first, as a reserve to the French in that sector.  A few days later, they began their first rotations in the front-line trenches themselves.  The 369th would ultimately serve more time on the front line than any other American regiment in the war–and would suffer more casualties as well.

Today in 1917: German Submarine Drowns Prisoners

Today in 1916: British Capture First Fokker with Synchronization Gear
Today in 1915:  Mass Deportations of Armenians Begin

Sources include: Stephen L. Harris, Harlem’s Hell Fighters.

Harlem Hellfighters: “I never seen the time ye…

Harlem Hellfighters: “I never seen the time yet that they were not ready. They
were all ways ready to go and they did go to the last man. . . . We were good.
Good a nuff to go any place.”

WW1 American Hellfighter & artist Horace Pippin talking about
the Hellfighters.  The Washington Post – His awesome diary
at the Smithsonian Institution  –
Illustration: WW1 Hellfighters in action “Outpost Raid, Champagne Sector” by
Horace Pippin – American Folk Art Museum

Black Soldiers in Houston Strike Back at Police

August 23 1917, Houston–Although the US Army was decidedly not integrated, the large contingents of new black soldiers at camps throughout the South was seen by many racist southerners as a challenge to the white-dominated order of society.  Black soldiers were still subject to the Jim Crow laws of the South, and were often given no additional respect by authority figures there.  This caused understandable resentment among the black soldiers, especially among those from the North, for whom Jim Crow laws were unfamiliar.

On August 23, two Houston police officers dragged a black woman, Sara Travers, from her home in a state of partial undress, apparently during a search for a player from an illegal craps game.  A passing black soldier, Private Alonzo Edwards, approached the officers; he was immediately set upon and beaten.  In the words of one of the police officers: “I beat that nigger until his heart got right.  He was a good nigger when I got through with him.”  Soon after, Corporal Charles Baltimore, a black military police officer, arrived at the scene and inquired after Edwards.  Baltimore, like other black MPs in Houston, was unarmed, in apparent deference to the racist attitudes of the city.  The police began shooting at Baltimore, who had no choice but to flee; the police eventually caught him, gave him a severe beating, and arrested him.

When news of this reached Camp Logan (home of the two soldiers), many soldiers began to discuss a counterattack against the police.  While their officers ordered them not to do so, they were not dissuaded, and eventually seized an a supply of ammunition (mortally wounding a fellow black soldier in the process) and marched out of camp, chanting “On to the Police Station.”  They eventually ran into two police officers (including one of the ones who had beaten Edwards and Baltimore) and killed them; several civilians were also killed on the way.  They ran into another man in uniform shortly thereafter; they killed him as well, thinking he was a police officer.  However, he was a captain in the Illinois National Guard.  Beginning to realize what they had done, the soldiers mostly began to disperse and trickle back to camp; one officer killed himself.

The soldiers involved were arrested over the next day.  Many would be executed in the following months.  Houston was placed under martial law, which prevented any mass violence against the black community like that in East St. Louis.  Nevertheless, the rate of migration north from Houston markedly increased after the riot.

As in East St. Louis, the NAACP conducted their own investigation of the events.  The final report, published in The Crisis in November, concluded:

The primary cause of the Houston riot was the habitual brutality of the white police officers of Huston in their treatment of colored people.

Today in 1916: First “Jasta” Fighter Squadron Created

Today in 1915: Turkish Ambassador Departs Rome After Italian Declaration of War
Today in 1914: Germans Attack British Expeditionary Force at Mons

Sources include: A. Scott Berg (ed.), World War I and America.

1917-1918 – Disparities between accommodations and assignments…

1917-1918 – Disparities between accommodations and assignments given to white and
black soldiers occurred in camps occasioning considerable complaint and friction in the Army as well as the wrongful attitude manifested by some white soldiers.
The African-American and white press noticed and protested against
various indignities upon black soldiers. An editorial in the New York World read in part as

We are claiming to fight this war to make the world safe for
DEMOCRACY. Democracy implies equality of privilege and equal obligation of
service. If we fight for this for the
world in general we ought to be prepared to practice it among ourselves. At
present we mingle democracy with discriminations. All the elements of
our citizenship do not stand on the same level. But there is no way of evading
the fact that under a modern military regime—one of universal service—all elements of our citizenship must stand on
the same level. No distinction
can be drawn in applying the military code between white soldiers and black
soldiers, between white officers and black officers. They are all fighting for
the same cause and deserve the same credit for doing so. Yet, only the other
day an black officer revisiting his home in Vicksburg, Mississippi,
was counseled by friends to put on civilian clothes, for fear that he might be
mobbed if he appeared on the streets in the uniform of a United States Army
officer. *

The Government is telling all Americans that they have an equal stake in the
war. All are invited to put their energies and resources into a common pool.
But if the enterprise is common and the burdens are common, the glory must also
be common.”

*It was reported that Lieutenant Joseph B. Saunders, the African-American army officer referred
in this article was indeed abused, knocked off the sidewalk by certain residents
or citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

More in this book – Photo: WW1 African American soldiers in Avocourt, France.

Black Community in East St. Louis Attacked; Dozens Killed


A National Guardsman standing in front of ruins in East St. Louis.

July 2 1917, East St. Louis–The industrial expansion in the North and Midwest spurred by the war had attracted new sources of labor from all across the country, including African-Americans from the rural South.  This was the start of the first Great Migration, lasting from WWI until the start of the Great Depression, in which over 1.5 million African-Americans moved north.  The newcomers were, to say the least, not universally welcomed by the white population there.  In East St. Louis, IL, white workers were alarmed by the influx from the south–in part due of worries about their job security, but mostly due to severe and pervasive racism.  On May 28, something set off large numbers of white men, who began to rampage through the streets of East St. Louis, assaulting whatever black men they could find.  Order was soon restored after the National Guard was called in.

On July 2, several white men in a car fired into a group of black pedestrians before driving off.  An hour later, a similar car entered the same neighborhood.  The car was fired upon, resulting in the death of two plainclothes police detectives inside.  White mobs once again descended on East St. Louis, while the police looked the other way.  Over the next day, Ida B. Wells reported that 40-150 black people were killed by the mobs–whether shot, beaten, or lynched–and even her estimates may be below the true figure.  Rioters cut fire department hoses and then burned down large sections of the black community; over 7000 people were displaced.  The riots only ended the next day when the National Guard arrived in force.

Outrage across the country was great, especially among the black community. Many called on Wilson to step up and take leadership in the matter, calling on him to “make America safe for democracy,” as he had promised to “make the world safe for democracy” by entering the war.  Over 10,000 people participated in an NAACP-organized Silent March in New York protesting the killings at the end of July.  Wilson largely remained silent, however, and ultimately left any criminal investigation to Illinois.  Congressional hearings were held, but were largely inconclusive; only a handful of men (some of them black) were convicted of any crime associated with the riot.

Today in 1916: Russian Offensive Towards Erzincan

Today in 1915: Kaiser Approves Falkenhayn’s Plans for Limited Attack on Poland
Today in 1914: Princip and Accomplices Confess

Sources include: East St. Louis Centennial (includes image credit).