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  • The New Negro Era and the Great African American Transformation
  • Gerald Early (bio)

The Great War and Black America

War. No other man-made event can cause as much social upheaval as quickly as war. And no man-made event holds the same rich promise of dramatic social transformation and political change. For a minority group with a history of persecution, nothing can offer as much peril and as much hope as war. What World War I offered African Americans, even before the United States officially entered it, was three distinct advantages or at least three promising possibilities for improving their condition: 1) the war consolidated great power, both economic and judicial, within the federal government, as happens virtually with all major wars this country has fought; this meant that blacks, accustomed to appealing their case for citizenship to the federal government, could now hope that that government could do more on their behalf simply because it had more wide-ranging authority; 2) the war created more jobs and increased income, thus creating greater economic opportunities; 3) the war brought the mobilization of more than 380,000 black men who served in the armed forces. Before the war, about 10,000 black men served in the United States Army, the overwhelming majority of all the black men in the military, serving in the four all-black units created immediately after the Civil War, the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments and the 9th and 10th cavalry. To put this in perspective, more than four times that number or about 42,000 served in Army combat units in France in 1918. It must be remembered that the vast majority of blacks in the Army were in service units, around 150,000 black stevedores served in Europe during the war. Seven [End Page 9] hundred and fifty blacks died in combat and 5,000 were wounded. Nearly one million black men registered for the draft during World War I. Such mobilization could not help but raise African American political awareness and their cultural exposure, not least of all their cultural exposure to one another. And this could not help but affect the black American population as a whole because it made the issue of military service a mass concern, an inevitability when a nation adopts conscription as the United States did on May 18, 1917. I would argue that the war made African Americans a truly modern national community with a more informed international consciousness and this, in turn, helped to make the New Negro Movement possible. Eventually, the irony had to strike most blacks, men and women, that fighting to save and protect democracy in the so-called western world while being systematically and legally oppressed by a democracy was either one of the world's most profound existential dilemmas worthy of soul-shaking tragedy or an absolutely fatuous political act worthy of utter contempt. The war, in short, intensified how black Americans thought about the nature of their citizenship; it politicized them, or, one might say, it re-politicized them in ways that seem to be essential in any effort to understand the New Negro Movement that dominated the 1920s. It is true that World War I did not change the condition of African Americans in the United States but it did change the way that many blacks thought about their condition if, for no other reason, than it made them think about the duties and privileges of citizenship and the issue of loyalty to a nation or to a set of communities.

In his book The American Negro in the World War, former Booker T. Washington aide Emmett J. Scott, who served as a special assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker from 1917 until the end of the war, wrote about the March 25, 1917 deployment of the all-black First Separate Battalion to guard the District of Columbia as particularly significant: "In this battalion there were to be found no hyphenates. In fact, the Negro has always proved himself to be 100-per-cent American, without alien sympathies and without hyphenate allegiance. The fact that a colored military unit," Scott observed, "was placed in...


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pp. 9-19
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