"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind" ~ Rudyard Kipling
Wilbur Little was one of the 200,000 black soldiers who served the U.S. in World War One. The day he returned to Blakely, Georgia in 1919, he was met at the train station by a group of white men who forced him to take off his uniform. A few days later when he was again seen wearing the uniform, a white mob lynched him. Little’s murder and that of other returning black soldiers, many also in uniform, sent out a clear message that the sacrifices made by African Americans for the cause of liberty in Europe had not lead to racial equality in America.
Racial tensions in the U.S. increased dramatically in the months following the war, and blacks had to fight, quite literally, for their survival. The massive migration of southern blacks to northern cities and the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan contributed to the unrest. Black social consciousness was increasing, urged on by men like Marcus Garvey with his “back to Africa” movement, and Father Devine who was calling for black pride. Military service had given blacks a new sense of confidence and political awareness and they were beginning to demand their rights.
The return of these newly-empowered soldiers spawned a nationwide surge of violence against blacks. Race riots erupted in several cities, the worst in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. In 1919, whites in Elaine, Arkansas massacred hundreds of black people in retaliation for the efforts of sharecroppers to organize themselves. The number of lynchings in the U.S. increased from sixty-four in 1918 to eighty-three in 1919. For African Americans, the end of the war meant anything but peace. Poet and author James Weldon Johnson characterized the bloody summer of 1919 as the Red Summer.
Lynching had long been deeply embedded into America’s racial psyche. The end of World War One saw this deadly form of vigilante “justice” reinvigorated into a modern symbol of enduring white power and superiority. Lynching was aimed at expelling blackness from the white community and reaffirming the purity of the white race. It was often targeted at the mythical “black beast rapist” who embodied white fears of black hypersexual animalism. Throughout the Red Summer of 1919, lynchings and their aftereffects followed a similar pattern:
- A black person, usually a man, is accused of some heinous crime, such as raping a white woman
- The accusation is assumed to be true
- The white mob lynches the accused, then marches into the black areas of the town destroying property and beating up or killing residents.
This pattern of terrorism and intimidation was repeated again and again during the Red Summer of 1919 when black communities and economic centers were burned to the ground. Often the accused was charged with nothing more than showing defiance or arrogance by wearing a U.S. military uniform.
In the succeeding 100 years we like to think that such days are long behind us, and that we will never again see the abuses of African Americans described in my historical novel, A Place near the Front. But nooses found recently at several locations in the National Mall and in other spots around the country remind us that we may not have progressed as much as we think.
As Lonnie Bunch writes in the New York Times: “The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.”
“The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.”
“So, what does it mean,”Mr. Bunche asks, “to have found three nooses on Smithsonian grounds in 2017? A noose inside a Missouri high school? A noose on the campus of Duke University? Another at American University?”
“I would argue, ”he contends, “that it answers a naïve and dangerous question that I hear too often: Why can’t African-Americans get over past discrimination?”
“The answer is that discrimination is not confined to the past. Nor is the African-American commitment to American ideals in the face of discrimination and hate.”
“The exhibitions inside the museum combine to form a narrative of a people who refused to be broken by hatred and who have always found ways to prod America to be truer to the ideals of its founders.”
On the night of May 14, 1918, Private Henry Johnson stood guard at Outpost 20 of the Argonne Forest in France’s Champaign region. Shortly after midnight, he thought he heard the the sounds of someone cutting through the barbed wire in the “no-man’s land” that separated the American and German front lines. German snipers then began firing on Johnson and another soldier, Needham Roberts, who was on guard duty with him.
“There isn’t so much to tell,” Johnson told an interviewer in New York after the war when he described what happened after the German snipers opened fire.
“…I began to get ready. They’d a box of hand grenades there and I took them out of the box and laid them all in a row where they would be handy… the snippin’ and clippin’ of the wires sounded near so I let go with a hand grenade. There was a yell from a lot of surprised Dutchmen and then they started firing. … A German grenade got Needham in the arm and through the hip. He was too badly wounded to do any fighting so I told him to lie in the trench and hand me up the grenades. Keep your nerve I told him. All the Dutchmen in the woods are at us but keep cool and we’ll lick ’em. … Some of the shots got me. One clipped my head, another my lip, another my hand, some in my side, and one smashed my left foot so bad that I have a silver plate holding it up now. The Germans came from all sides. Roberts kept handing me the grenades and I kept throwing them, and the Dutchmen kept squealing but jes’ the same, they kept comin’ on. When the grenades were all gone I started in with my rifle.”
Johnson was using the French rifle he’d been given after being placed under the French Army’s command. When he tried to load an American magazine, the French rifle jammed.
“There was nothing to do but use my rifle as a club and jump into them. I banged them on the dome and the side and everywhere I could land until the butt of my rifle busted. One of the Germans hollered, ‘Rush him, Rush him.’ I decided to do some rushing myself. I grabbed my French bolo knife and slashed in a million directions. … They knocked me around considerable and whanged me on the head, but I always managed to get back on my feet. There was one guy that bothered me. He climbed on my back and I had some job shaking him off and pitching him over my head. Then I stuck him in the ribs with the bolo. I stuck one guy in the stomach and he yelled in good New York talk: That black ——— got me. I was still banging them when my crowd came up and saved me and beat the Germans off.”
The five foot four inch Johnson calmly concluded his account of the battle: “That’s about all. There wasn’t so much to it.”
Later that year, after the war ended, the “New York World” and “The Saturday Evening Post” described how Johnson, despite receiving 21 wounds in hand-to-hand combat, single-handedly killed four Germans and wounded as many as twenty more.
Despite a few early accolades, the U.S. military didn’t think there was much to Johnson’s heroism and did nothing to formally recognize it. Although the French celebrated his bravery, Johnson had nothing to show from his own government, not even a Purple Heart for the serious wounds he sustained that kept him hospitalized for months. Because the army kept no record of Johnson’s injuries, he was ineligible for disability benefits after his discharge.
Five years after he returned from the war, Johnson, unable to work because of his injuries, separated from his wife. Alone, he spent his last years in poverty and alcoholism before dying, in obscurity, at a veteran’s hospital in 1929 at the age of 36.
Today, many wonder how such an injustice could possibly have occurred. But in 1918, racism against African Americans was common among white American troops throughout the U.S. military chain of command. The French, however, had no such problems with American black troops. Johnson was recognized by the French with a Croix de Guerre with star and bronze palm, and was the first American soldier in World War I to receive that honor. From 1919 on, Henry Johnson’s story has been part of wider consideration of treatment of African Americans in the Great War. There was a long struggle to achieve awards for him from the U.S. military. He was finally awarded the Purple Heart in 1996. In 2002, the U.S. military awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. Previous efforts to secure the Medal of Honor failed, but in 2015, ninety-seven years after his heroism, he was finally honored with the award by President Obama.
Ever since World War II, the Army Airborne has been an elite U.S. military fighting force. Because of their mobility and fierce fighting skills, paratroop units have long been relied upon for major quick-strike campaigns, often parachuting behind enemy lines to perform critical missions.
Membership in legendary divisions such as the 82nd Airborne (the “All American Division”) and the 101st Airborne (the “Screaming Eagles’) have always been deemed a high military honor. The strongest and most able of the U.S. military have competed hard to join these famed units.
But soldiers of color were not always welcome in the airborne. When paratroop divisions were first organized in the early 1940s, black soldiers were not deemed fit for the demanding service. Military leaders of the era believed black soldiers lacked the courage and brains to meet the demands required of a paratrooper.
This was nothing new for the army. As told in my novel A Place near the Front, the army fought hard to undermine World War One black officers, the first ever commissioned in U.S. military history.
When they were blocked from joining the then all-white airborne units, a group of black soldiers fought hard to have the army establish a 20-member all-black “test-platoon” to allow soldiers of color to showcase their skills and prove they had the right stuff to fight with elite units.
These black pioneers were exceptional men, specially selected for the task. They were former university students and professional athletes, top-notch and veteran non-coms. A major element in their success was that, unlike other black infantry units headed by white officers, they were entirely black, from commanding officer down to the newest private.
Though combat-ready and alerted for European duty in late 1944, the changing tides of the World War II resulted in a different assignment – jumping over the blazing forests of the American Northwest searching for Japanese balloon bombs, a job requiring exact skills and special courage. In this unusual role, the test platoon, now called the 555th Parachute Infantry (nicknamed the “Triple Nickles”), also confronted a new dimension in warfare involving the use of biological agents that could destroy woodlands and crops, but not humans. These men soon became known as the “SmokeJumpers.”
In early 1945 the “Triple Nickles” received secret orders for a permanent change of station. They were sent to Pendleton, Oregon and trained by the U.S. Forest Service, becoming history’s first military smokejumpers. There were two reasons for this assignment. First, senior commanders in Europe were leery of having highly trained colored paratroopers coming into contact with racist white elements of the time. Second, the Japanese were at the time floating incendiary devices attached to balloons across the Pacific Ocean, taking advantage of the jet stream’s easterly flow, in an attempt to start forest fires in the northwestern United States. The Forest Service asked the military for help and the “Triple Nickle” was ready, willing and able. The battalion answered some 36 fire calls with more than 1,200 individual jumps during the summer of 1945, operating from Pendleton and Chico, Calif. The operation covered all of the north-western states including Montana. During fire operations the battalion suffered numerous injuries but only one fatality.
The Triple Nickles proved their competence, and shortly after the end of the war, black troopers became members of all major paratroop units. By the time I did my military service in the middle 1950s, black soldiers had been fully accepted into airborne units and I was fortunate enough to serve as a proud member of the 82nd Airborne.
The U.S. got more than it bargained for when it organized two “all-colored” combat units and sent them to France to fight the last year of World War One. While our nation was slow to recognize the great contributions of its “men in bronze,” fearing the impact on American culture of empowered black veterans returning at the end of the war, the French immediately fell in love with the dusky fighting men, embracing them not only for their fierce combat skills, but also for their unique cultural gifts, especially in music. The one hundred-piece band of the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters Band” became an instant favorite of the French. Accomplished musicians when they entered the army, and led by the incomparable ragtime and jazz composer, arranger and bandleader James Reese Europe, they captivated European audiences with their until-then unknown jazz music. Audiences created an international demand for the new and distinctly American musical form.
Jim Reese Europe was the leading figure in the African-American music scene of New York City in the early 1900s. Years later, Eubie Blake who also played with the 369th band called Europe the Martin Luther King of music. In 1912, Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra made history as the first band to play jazz at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Presenting a program entirely of the music of black composers, the performance made the city’s cultural elite aware of negro music for the first time. Of the event, Europe commented, “We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It’s the product of our souls; it’s been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race.”
In 1918, Europe and the 369th band saw combat and traveled over 2,000 miles in France performing for British, French and American military audiences as well as French civilians. The Hellfighters made their first recordings in France for the Pathé brothers. Their first concert included a French march, the Stars and Stripes Forever, and the Memphis Blues, which, according to band member Noble Sissle, “… started ragtimitis in France.”
At the end of the war, the 369th returned to New York City, and on February 17, 1919, paraded through the city with its famous band playing and leading the way. The day became an unofficial holiday for all of Harlem, and many school children were dismissed from school so they could attend the parade. 250,000 people lined the streets to see the famous regiment and its band. The parade began on Fifth Avenue and 61st Street, proceeded uptown past crowds of white bystanders, turned west on 110th Street and then north on Lenox Avenue, marching into Harlem where proud black New Yorkers packed the streets to see them. The parade became a marker for African American service to the nation, and was a frequent point of reference in civil rights discussions.
Sadly, after surviving the deadliest war in world history to that point, Jim Europe did not live through the Hellfighter’s national tour. A member of the band, angry over what he considered poor treatment, fatally stabbed Europe on May 10, 1919 ending his amazing life at the age of only 39. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake assumed leadership of the band which successfully completed its tour and continued performing for many years.