restricted access "An Arm of God": The Early History of the NAACP in Charleston, West Virginia, 1917-1925
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"An Arm of God":
The Early History of the NAACP in Charleston, West Virginia, 1917-1925

In 1922, T. Edward Hill, the director of the West Virginia Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics, described his home state as a place where, "the races live side by side, work side by side, co-operate for community uplift and show a spirit of fairness and tolerance unsurpassed anywhere and equaled in but few places."1 Hill's writings are contradicted by ongoing events in the state capital during the years following World War I. During these years, local blacks in Charleston formed one of the most active early branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the nation, under the leadership of a new arrival, the Reverend Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Their actions revealed the fault lines of race relations in the state capital and the willingness of local blacks to challenge discrimination in their city and state.

Charleston's black community was hardly alone in embracing this historical moment to press for full equality in the United States. The decades following the Civil War witnessed the retreat of the federal government from enforcement of blacks' newfound rights, as evidenced in the rise of segregation, housing and employment discrimination, and disenfranchisement. Violence, including lynching, undergirded these systems of legal and extralegal racism. In response, blacks engaged in widespread resistance, ranging from legal challenges to armed self-defense. Shawn Alexander's work on black protest organizations in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries demonstrates the manner in which groups like the Afro-American League and Afro-American Council laid the foundation for the rise of the NAACP by emphasizing anti-lynching protests, court battles against discriminatory laws, and engagement with elected officials. With the rise of the interracial NAACP in the 1910s, black and white activists thus built upon the examples of earlier agitators in shaping their approach to the "race question."

By the late 1910s and 1920s, national and international conditions helped to create the generation of "New Negroes" who helped lay the foundation for the civil rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century. Jonathan Rosenberg has noted the wide array of political thinkers and activists who attempted to use World War I, particularly the service of blacks in the war effort, to argue for civil rights on the home front. While some leaders, like W. E. B. Du Bois, [End Page 1] urged the black community to set aside its "special grievances" for the duration of the war,2 others carefully crafted their arguments for racial equality in the same terms used to promote the war domestically. Such issues became even more pertinent and pressing after the war ended, when competition over jobs and housing exacerbated racial tensions nationwide, leading to the "Red Summer" of 1919 and two dozen race riots across the country. Harry Jones, a black high school teacher in Wheeling, West Virginia, noted the discrepancy between the aims of the "war to end all wars" and the continuation of Jim Crow policies in the United States. "The Negro, 'having given his best . . . "to make the world safe for democracy," having had sounded repeatedly into his ears that all mankind is entitled to self-determination, has formed the opinion that Democracy ought to begin at home, and that he ought to share in the fruits of victory.'"3

This study, then, builds upon the existing scholarship of how black activists used the backdrop of World War I to frame civil rights debates. More importantly, it seeks to expand upon the growing field of "local studies" within the literature of twentieth century civil rights activities. As Adam Fairclough noted, an important advantage of such studies is that they are more likely to integrate the various perspectives of blacks and whites. "[The] civil rights movement involved a dialectic between blacks and whites. Neither side, moreover, was monolithic, and a study of this dialectic enables us to escape from the stereotypes that have too often reduced history to a simple-minded morality play."4 Conditions in Charleston, including the political participation of local blacks, allow us to examine interracial coalitions and negotiations in a...