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Race, War, and Surveillance

African Americans and the United States Government during World War I

Mark Ellis

Publication Year: 2001

In April 1917, black Americans reacted in various ways to the entry of the United States into World War I in the name of "Democracy." Some expressed loud support, many were indifferent, and others voiced outright opposition. All were agreed, however, that the best place to start guaranteeing freedom was at home.

Almost immediately, rumors spread across the nation that German agents were engaged in "Negro Subversion" and that African Americans were potentially disloyal. Despite mounting a constant watch on black civilians, their newspapers, and their organizations, the domestic intelligence agents of the federal government failed to detect any black traitors or saboteurs. They did, however, find vigorous demands for equal rights to be granted and for the 30-year epidemic of lynching in the South to be eradicated. In Race, War, and Surveillance, Mark Ellis examines the interaction between the deep-seated fears of many white Americans about a possible race war and their profound ignorance about the black population. The result was a "black scare" that lasted well beyond the war years.

Mark Ellis is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland.

June 2001
256 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4, index, append.
cloth 0-253-33923-5 $39.95 s /

Published by: Indiana University Press

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pp. vii-x

This book grew out of my initial research into the causes of the major race riots that took place in the United States during May–October 1919 and the governmental responses those disorders produced. As I investigated the turmoil of American race relations during what James Weldon Johnson called “the Red Summer,” it became obvious that critical shifts in African-...

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pp. ix-xxii

Looking back over half a century, the novelist and poet Arna Bontemps identified 1917 as the year in which “the seeds of the Black Renaissance of the Twenties were planted.” It can equally be argued that many elements of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s began to germinate at the same time. The entry of the United States into World War I, ostensibly...

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One: African Americans and the War for Democracy, 1917

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pp. 1-47

During the first three years of World War I, the great majority of African Americans supported the United States government’s policy of neutrality. Indeed, few groups of Americans regarded the European conflict with greater emotional detachment; the war seemed particularly irrelevant beside the economic and political struggles in which African Americans were...

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Two: The Wilson Administration and Black Opinion, 1917–1918

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pp. 48-73

By the beginning of September 1917, several events taken together had convinced the director of the Military Intelligence Branch (MIB), Col. Ralph Van Deman, of the need to recruit experts on what the agency came quickly to call “Negro Subversion.” The vehement protests following the riot at East St. Louis had seemed to fundamentally question black support...

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Three: Black Doughboys

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pp. 74-100

Arrangements for drafting and deploying the 357,000 African Americans who served in the United States Army during World War I were only gradually arrived at by the War Department in the summer of 1917. Although senior officers and bureaucrats made no suggestion that the long-standing policy of assigning the races to separate regiments be revised, they debated...

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Four: The Surveillance of African-American Leadership

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pp. 101-140

For most of 1917, Justice Department and War Department investigations of “pro-Germanism among the Negroes” were largely confined to localized instances of black protest, allegations of enemy subversion, and the military implications of civil unrest. Not until the spring of 1918 did the BI and the MIB become routinely engaged in investigating and, in a limited way, analyzing...

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Five: W. E. B. Du Bois, Joel Spingarn,and Military Intelligence

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pp. 141-182

In the summer of 1918, NAACP chairman Joel Spingarn, now a major in the U.S. Army, seized the opportunity of an unexpected posting to the MIB to put forward a “constructive programme” to transform the work of military intelligence on racial issues. In so doing, he was attempting to exploit the peculiar circumstances of the national emergency and the expansion...

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Six: Diplomacy and Demobilization, 1918–1919

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pp. 183-227

In the final months of the war, military intelligence in Washington was reorganized, largely on the initiative of Gen. Peyton C. March, who had begun a thorough shake-up of the General Staff on his return to the United States from France in March 1918. His later assertion that when he arrived the Military Intelligence Branch was no more than “a minor appendage of...

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Seven: Conclusion

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pp. 228-232

The federal government’s intelligence files record fascinating bureaucratic excursions into what to white officials was the “other” world of black America, as attempts were made to account for the increasing exasperation of African Americans with the effects of racial prejudice. The wartime intelligence agencies conceived of legitimate black political activity only in...


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pp. 233-304

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 305-312


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pp. 313-326

E-ISBN-13: 9780253109323
E-ISBN-10: 0253109329
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253339232

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 1 index
Publication Year: 2001