Saturday, February 03, 2018

Black History Month takes on special significance in 2018

Black History Month holds special meaning to me this year.

I am reading up on black history during World War I and immediately thereafter. It's mainly research for a novel, but it's also a fascinating time, a tumultuous time. Black soldiers helped win the war.. Black southerners migrated to the north for defense jobs. Ragtime and jazz flowered. Traditionally black colleges and universities were thriving. Returning soldiers were less likely to suffer the prejudicial attitudes of whites, only one reason that the summer after the war is called Bloody 1919 or Red Summer. There was other bad news: the KKK was on the rise from Stone Mountain, Georgia, to the Rockies of Colorado.

As far as the big picture, nationwide prohibition began in 1920 and women got the vote. Blacks faced Jim Crow laws in the South, a big factor in suppressing their vote, a trend that Republicans continue today. .

There was no integrated army in 1917. Black troops volunteered and many were drafted. They served in all-black units, often commanded by white officers. The troops proved their mettle under fire. But, in the beginning, Pershing's generals wanted them to serve only as labor troops. This prejudicial attitude was evident in a memo sent out in 1917 titled "Secret Information Concerning Black Troops," written by Colonel Louis Linard, Pershing's liaison offer to the French ministry. Here's a sample:
"The American attitude upon the Negro question may seem a matter of discussion to many French minds. But we French are not in our province if we undertake to discuss what some call "prejudice." American opinion is unanimous on the "color question" and does not admit of any discussion."
As Andrew Carroll writes in "My Fellow Soldiers," this was "blatantly false; millions of white Americans were sympathetic to the plight of blacks in the United States." But that didn't get in the way of the memo writer. He warned French officers not to treat African-American soldiers "with familiarity and indulgence." The French, it seems, saw African-Americans as Americans and not a separate breed. Back to the memo:
"...the black American is regarded by the white American as an inferior being with whom relations of business or service only are possible. The black is constantly being censured for his want of intelligence and discretion, his lack of civic and professional conscience, and for his tendency toward undue familiarity."
The odious memo was circulated to the French officer corps. They ordered copies collected and burned. They already had witnessed the bravery of black American troops under fire. In fact, the French had several units of black troops woven into their army. When the beleaguered French asked for help, Pershing assigned black units to the front. He was adamant in keeping white troops under American command. He wasn't so selective with his black troops.

To learn more, read Carroll's excellent book, notably the chapter "Black Jack and the Hellfighters." If you're partial to graphic novels, I recommend the excellent "The Harlem Hellfighters" by Max Brooks with illustrations by Canaan White. Brooks is the author of "World War Z" and "The Zombie Survival Guide." White illustrates the World War II comics series "Uber." The Hellfighters was the name the Germans hung on the 369th Infantry Regiment from New York. According to the book jacket copy:
"They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations."
Not only that. The unit's ragtime and jazz band, led by James Reece Europe, was borrowed by many white units, and wowed the French with le jazz hot. After facing the usual racism at home, scores of African-American soldiers returned to France to settle and to ignite the Roaring '20s music scene in Paris. .

While we have many examples of books and movies featuring African-American troops in World War II and after (watch the Oscar-nominated "Mudbound" on Netflix), books about black soldiers in World War I are just hitting the shelves. Stay tuned for a six-hour Harlem Hellfighters History Channel series later this year.

Just a few examples of how much we have to learn about U.S. history. Read! The truth is out there!

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