Shaping 20th Century America

by Allen Ruff

January 14, 2015

Stating that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” president Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917. The United States formally entered World War I four days later. To some extent by that time, all of U.S. society had come to experience the effects and impacts of what already was a global conflagration, underway since August 1914. Among those directly and profoundly affected by the “Great War” from its start were millions of African Americans. Their lives, for better and worse, would be dramatically affected if not utterly transformed by the war and its aftermath.

In 1910, nearly 90% of some 10 million African Americans lived in the South, four-fifths of them in rural areas. That would begin to change dramatically between 1914 and 1921 as the war in Europe set forces in motion that would convulse the social order of the entire region. The coming of the war immediately disrupted trans-Atlantic credit flows resulting in a 50% drop in the price of cotton, the number one U.S. export. Across the South, that decline deepened a severe recession underway nationally. Affected most were millions of Black families — largely sharecroppers, tenant farmers and agricultural laborers already coerced and victimized by a corrupt crop lien credit system and ceaseless debt peonage. Evicted and destitute, some tens of thousands migrated northward or joined an already swollen surplus labor pool in the region’s cities. The stage was set for the “Great Migration,” the most significant internal demographic shift in US history resulting from the war.

War and the “Great Migration”

Demand for war-related commodities, primarily from Britain, ended the recession of 1913-14 and stimulated a major industrial boom. The war, at the same time, reduced the Atlantic flow of cheap industrial labor from Europe — from over 1.2 million in 1914 to just over 326,000 the following year. (By 1918, it fell to barely 10% of pre-war levels.) In response, Northern industrialists turned southward to fill the bottom rungs of war-related heavy industries — in meatpacking, auto, steel, shipbuilding, railroad construction, and munitions factories. In search of hands, Northern railroads and other industries sent labor agents south with promises of decent wages and, initially, offers of free or “go now, pay later” passage north.

It didn’t take much persuasion by recruiters to induce what became a mass exodus. While war demand improved cotton prices, whole areas of the “Cotton Belt” were hit by devastating floods, drought and the crop-damaging boll weevil during the summer of 1915. Severe storms also laid waste to tobacco and subsistence crops. Seen by some as a providential sign, the weevil and the weather contributed to the exodus.

Economic “push” and “pull” factors aside, the migration also included hundreds of thousands who consciously took the opportunity to “vote with their feet” and leave behind the injustices, political disenfranchisement and institutionalized racist violence of “Jim Crow” and “Judge Lynch.” While heaviest migration came from those areas where cotton predominated, the movement included workers with “New South” industrial experience — in Mississippi Delta lumber, on regional railroad work gangs, in Birmingham iron and steel, and construction of all sorts. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a rail hub and center for the region’s lumber industry, was almost depopulated. People from Southern cities also left. Jackson, for example, experienced an outflow of small business and professional men and ministers. Across the region, white homeowners complained about the sudden disappearance of their domestic help.

A panel from Jacob Lawrence’s The Great Migration.

Initially young single men, and eventually whole kin networks and communities, pulled up stakes as word of northern “Promised Land” opportunities spread. The movement often took the form of a “dual migration” as many first relocated to the region’s cities; while their Black populations also increased, such urban centers with their railway hubs also became way stations for those “leapfrogging” north.

Out of white view, the bulk of those heading north collectively organized themselves through informal family and community networks, with churches and fraternal lodges playing a key role. Letters home or appearing in the Black press from those leading the way encouraged others. That press, most notable among them The Chicago Defender published and edited by the race-conscious entrepreneur Robert Abbott, played an essential role. The paper’s weekly “national edition” specifically targeted a Southern Black readership. Beckoning people to “join the flight from Egypt to Canaan,” its pages featured headline coverage of horrific racist mob atrocities across the South while its editorial cartoons, photos, and poetry promoted the exodus.

The Defender carried job ads and constant letters that spoke of opportunity up north, worsening conditions in Dixie, and a constant stream of inquiries from those eager to make the journey. Numbers of Southern towns soon prohibited The Defender’s sale and authorities seized its bulk delivery shipments. Two of its correspondents were murdered. In response, Abbott and his staff organized a clandestine railroad network that enlisted Pullman car porters, “red caps,” and traveling entertainers to pick up the weekly’s bundles in Chicago and carry them southward where they were passed along to local distributors or handed out to audiences in segregated movie houses and night spots.

Abbott also devised various strategies to propel the movement including a publicized call for a mass “Great Northern Drive” on May 5, 1917, which led thousands to congregate at railway depots across the South in anticipation of trains to carry them north. With awaiting crowds dispersed by local sheriffs, that “day of deliverance” did not materialize but the succeeding week witnessed the heaviest rush northward up to that time. There is no telling how many actually received The Defender’s message as single copies were passed along hand to hand and read aloud to the illiterate. But with weekly circulation approaching 300,000 by 1920, two-thirds of which was distributed outside Chicago, Abbott became what the Great Migration historian Florette Henri described as a “black Joshua blowing trumpet call of jobs through a rolled up Defender.”

Estimated numbers of those who left vary greatly, primarily because so many people, transient throughout the period, went uncounted. Contemporary estimates for 1915-1921 range from 500,000 to beyond 700,000. With the vast majority arriving during the war years, Cle­veland’s Black population went from around 9,000 in 1910 to some 35,000 in 1920. New York’s rose from 91,000 to 152,000; Chicago’s from 44,000 to 109,000; and Philadelphia’s from 85,000 to 135,000. With Ford opening its factory gates to Black workers for the first time in 1914, Detroit’s African-American population went from around 5,000 in 1910 to some 41,000 a decade later. (It reached 120,000 by 1930.)

Reshaping the social geography of major cities across the North, that influx and the white response to it accelerated the formation of racially defined “ghettos” as housing discrimination confined African Americans, regardless of class, to what would eventually be dubbed the “inner city.”

The White Man’s War at Home

White elites across the South moved to halt the migration as it accelerated through 1916-1917. After all, the movement imperiled the region’s economic base while it fundamentally threatened to upset white-defined physical and social notions of African-American “place” in the dominant order. In hopes of slowing the flight in 1916-1917, some Southern newspapers actually editorialized for a reduction in lynch mob violence, and the region as a whole apparently experienced some decline, though never a cessation, in the number of reported lynchings just prior to U.S. entry in the war.

That entry then unleashed a wave of fear and hyper-nationalism, as well as unprecedented levels of state surveillance, repression and vigilante violence that targeted any and all activity deemed “disloyal.” Formal involvement in the war in turn provided those eager to halt the exodus and its related disruption of the “racial status quo” with additional weapons, as any perceived assertions of African American personhood became equated with “disloyalty” and “subversion.”

Federal war measures, in force until the United States signed a separate peace treaty with Germany in 1921, defined and criminalized that “disloyalty.” The Espionage Act of June 15, 1917 made it a federal crime to “willfully urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production” of anything deemed essential to the war effort. Sedition Act amendments in 1918 made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the government of the United States… or the military and naval forces, the flag or the uniform” of the Army or Navy. Passed ostensibly to deter German enemy activity and used extensively against white pacifist and leftwing war opponents, those federal enactments and subsequent ones directly imperiled anyone who appeared to challenge white supremacist rule.

As the Great Migration stepped up, recurrent rumors spread across the South that clandestine German agents were to blame. Tales of German agitators stoked white fears of an impending “race war” and provoked often violent responses as the migration continued. Unable to admit its causes rooted in Black oppression and exploitation, white Southerners citing “German subversion” meanwhile turned to Washington. The Administration established a coordinated federal effort ostensibly intended to impede any “pro-German” activity. That revved-up surveillance apparatus from its inception monitored potentially “subversive” African-American activity. In that way, the “war for democracy” shaped the decades-long federal response to “Black militancy” as the dominant white agenda — maintenance of white supremacist rule — became a “national security” priority of the federal government.

In 1917 the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (BI), the future FBI, stepped up preexisting surveillance of African-American organizations, publications and individuals, and compiled regularly updated files on “Pro Germanism Among the Negroes.” Aided by state and local authorities and the American Protective League (APL), a volunteer civilian army of some 250,000 super-patriotic spies, the BI’s agents tapped phones, opened mail, made warrantless searches, infiltrated organizations, and employed intimidation, threats and disinformation to curtail Black dissent.

In tandem, the Army’s Military Intelligence Branch (MIB), later expanded as the Military Intelligence Division (MID), carried on its own surveillance and investigations of suspected African-American “disloyalty.” The MIB compiled separate “Negro Subversion” files that it regularly shared with the BI and other agencies, including the Navy and State Departments. They, too, conducted intelligence and surveillance operations, as did Treasury and Post Office Department censors. The MIB in particular recruited Black operatives to infiltrate and report on various African-American organizations. In coordination with the Committee on Public Information, the government’s wartime propaganda agency, those MIB agents also worked to influence Black public opinion. Today’s “national surveillance state” had origins, in part, in that coordinated effort to monitor Black political activity.

W.E.B. Du Bois.

In the years before U.S. entry into the war, the hard-pressed majority of African Americans largely remained indifferent to what was widely understood as a “white man’s war.” Some Black activist intellectuals, best known among them W.E.B. DuBois, early identified the “African roots of the war” in imperialist rivalry. In lectures during 1915-16, the race- and class-conscious Harlem socialist Hubert Harrison clearly described the war as a conflict between the nations of the “white race” competing to decide “who shall be the inheritors of the lands of Africa and Asia and dictators of the lives and destinies of their colored inhabitants.”

The run-up and entry into the war elicited varied responses. There were those of a more “accommodationist” stripe who fully supported the war effort. More prevalent were those who understood the hypocrisy of Wilson’s proclaimed war aims but nevertheless offered degrees of support in hope of some reciprocal improvements in civil and human rights. There also were those who thought the war would provide opportunities for advancement and quicken the pace of reform. (Roundly criticized for it and regretting it afterward, in a July 1918 editorial in the NAACP’s Crisis, Du Bois called upon African Americans to “Close Ranks” in support of the war effort. At about the same time, he had been offered a captain’s position in the Army’s Military Intelligence Division through the white co-founder of the NAACP, Joel Spingarn, himself already an officer in the MID.)

East St. Louis and Houston

Two pivotal events, coming shortly after U.S. entry, deepened a general Black disaffection. First came the horrific “race riot” at East St. Louis, Illinois on July 1-3, 1917. The second, on August 23rd, involved a mutiny of African-American soldiers at Houston, Texas. Both events and the federal response seared the consciousness of Black people nationwide.

East St. Louis, across the Mississippi from St. Louis, was a booming industrial slum run by corrupt local officials and a police force that safeguarded its absentee-owned aluminum and iron ore works, meat processing plants, and some 376 saloons, gambling dens and flourishing sex trade. Ten percent of the total in 1910, the city’s Black population nearly doubled to some 13,000 by 1917. Some 2400 arrived in 1916-17 alone. A major Mississippi hub for some 27 rail lines, the town also experienced a constant flow of Great Migration transients that fanned white racist fears of an increasing Black “invasion.”

Already a de facto Jim Crow town, the city became the site of intensified class and race antagonisms as war production picked up. Bosses imported Black workers to smash strikes by “whites only” unions through 1916. Tensions — heightened by sensationalized newspaper accounts of a Black crime wave and “Negro gun toters,” and claims that Republican politicians had “colonized” Black voters to defeat Democrats — first exploded on May 28th in an initial white rampage.

Largely unprotected by the National Guard brought in to “restore order,” Black residents armed themselves. Then, on July 1-3 white mobs frenzied by the shooting of two white detectives indiscriminately shot, stabbed, burned and mutilated Black men, women and children and torched their homes and businesses while local police stood back or actively joined in the mayhem. In what contemporary Black writers described as a “pogrom” and “massacre,” half the city’s Black population fled as some 6000 were left homeless. While official findings listed 39 Black and eight white dead, the actual tally of Black victims remained unknown as people were incinerated in their homes or drowned in the river. Estimates ranged as high as 250 killed, with over 1000 injured.

The incident stunned and outraged Black America. Speaking before a church crowd of 1000 on July 4th, Harlem militant Hubert Harrison called for armed self-defense while pointing to the central contradiction of Wilson’s “war for democracy” abroad and increasing racist terror at home. In an NAACP-organized silent procession on July 28, ten thousand Black men, women and children marched down New York’s crowd-lined Fifth Avenue, with signs among them reading “MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY? and “YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.” Calls by civil rights moderates for a federal investigation and White House condemnation of mob violence meanwhile fell on deaf ears.

The Houston incident involved members of an all-Black regular Army battalion sent to nearby Camp Logan three weeks after East St. Louis. Incensed by continual racist abuses in the Jim Crow town and outraged when racist cops beat and jailed two fellow soldiers, the men seized munitions, marched into the city and randomly shot white civilians, killing 17 and wounding 11. In actuality a rebellion against Jim Crow, the act of Black men in Army uniforms shooting white civilians could not pass without severe retribution. The military indicted 118 with conspiracy to mutiny and murder under the Articles of War, then in effect. In three trials, the largest courts martial in U.S. history, and without any witnesses ever confirming the identity of any of the accused, 110 men were found guilty. Sixty-three received life sentences and 29 were sentenced to death.

Following the first court martial, 13 defendants, denied any right of appeal or review, were summarily hanged in secret and buried in unmarked graves three days after the verdicts came down. Though Wilson, giving in to public outcry and various political calculations, commuted the death sentences of ten later defendants, he approved the execution of six others.

The specter of a Black soldiers’ armed revolt ignited a white public outcry across the South in opposition to the training of Black troops at the region’s bases. The Houston “mutiny” also sent shock waves through every level of the military. The War Department shipped existing all-Black regular units to Hawaii and the Philippines for the duration of the war, and slowed the commissioning of Black junior officers from a segregated Officers’ Training Camp at Des Moines, Iowa. It halted the call-up of Black conscripts from mid-September through the following spring, and accelerated the shipment of barely trained and ill-equipped irregulars to France.

Resistance to the “White Man’s War”

The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917 required all able bodied men, ages 21 to 31, to register. It gave each state a quota based upon its proportion of the total population. African Americans who complied wound up getting drafted at higher percentage rate than that for eligible whites; of 2.3 million who registered, 370,000 were called up. At the same time, Black men failed to register at a rate three times greater than that of whites. Those in the South comprised the majority of the region’s “deserters” — those who failed to show for induction or went AWOL afterward — an estimated 100,000 of them. When inductions were halted after Houston, unknown numbers took the opportunity to disappear in the Great Migration flow. Clearly, a significant number made conscious decisions to abstain from the “white man’s war.”

The mere thought of arming and training African-American men met with intense opposition in the White South well before Houston. Others, however, argued that white men alone should not shoulder the burden while Black men remained at home. Underlying all this was a concern for “regional safety,” resting upon the deeply seated historic fear of armed retribution and, ever present in racist imaginings, the need to protect white Southern womanhood.

In the Cotton Belt low country, influential planters finagled deferments for “their” hands. That, in turn, fanned poor white resentment as up-country men were called in greater numbers to fill state quotas for what many of them viewed as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Displaced onto African Americans, that class resentment deepened as the call-up of Black men was put on hold following Houston.

As war-bred animosities, insecurity and fears increased, so did the number of reported lynchings — from 36 in 1917, 60 in 1918, to 76 in 1919, an average of more than one a week. In response, federal law enforcement agencies stepped up surveillance and harassment of those who campaigned against the racist lawlessness. The indefatigable anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, for instance, came under increasing Bureau of Investigation scrutiny when she launched a campaign to protest the legal lynching of the thirteen soldiers executed after Houston and ongoing white mob atrocities.

Jim Crow “Over There”

Some 400,000 Black conscripts and enlistees served. They went for numerous reasons ranging from a sense of duty and obligation to “no choice.” The opportunity to leave the South and elsewhere certainly was a factor. The promise of $30.00 per month marked a material improvement for many. The Army they entered was totally “separate and unequal.” Under white officers, Black troops received substandard training, inadequate equipment and provisions. They endured often abysmal living conditions and not uncommon physical abuse. Some were murdered, even lynched in the service.

Making up a third of the Army’s labor force and made to wear blue denim rather than regular army uniforms, 80% of the 200,000 sent abroad were relegated to labor battalions, virtual chain gangs without chains often headed by former work gang overseers. They labored as stevedores, built roads, railroads and warehouses, or worst of all, were detailed to exhume and rebury the dead from temporary battlefield graves.

Members of the all Black 92nd Division.

At the same time, service in France gave the Black soldier a glimpse of life outside the confines of the American racial system. Some fraternized on occasion with white civilians and troops from France’s Africa colonies. In effect, the American Expeditionary Force became but one crucible for the molding of a “New Negro” as Jim Crow “Over There” radicalized a significant cohort of young men. Troops from two all-Black divisions, the 92nd and the 93rd, the only U.S. army Black units to see combat, did so under French command. Not allowing Black soldiers to fight alongside whites, U.S. commander Gen. John J. Pershing gave them over to the French with instructions that its army and civilian officials not treat African Americans in a friendly fashion or commend them, “especially in front of white Americans,” and to segregate them and prevent any intimacy with French women.

The Return Home

Upon returning to New York in February 1919, the 93rd Division’s highly decorated 369th Infantry Regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” received a huge welcome from millions as they marched up Fifth Avenue on the way home to Harlem. Returning at the beginning of one of the most turbulent, violent years in U.S. history, and foreshadowing what was to come, the regiment’s “Hell Fighters Band” did its own nuanced rendition, layered with meaning, of the 1919 hit song, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree.”

While returning vets provided a deep source of pride for African-Americans, they also posed a threat to white supremacy. Innumerable Black vets came home with expanded vistas and ambitions. Not about to resume their old “place” in the rural Southern order, some 100,000 moved to cities north and south. Many then faced de facto Jim Crow abuse as the “color line” increasingly defined the physical and social boundaries of the urban North. The mere presence of those returnees ramped up racist reaction and violence, South and North. The mere sight of Black men in uniform was enough to incite depraved white attacks as at least 19 vets, some of them armed and defiant, were lynched in 1918-1919. Two were burned alive.

Rapid demobilization following the Armistice plunged the country into crisis as the war boom evaporated. Unem­ploy­ment, worsened by the return of millions from the military, increased as price inflation battered declining real wages. As a result, 1919 witnessed a massive upsurge of post-war labor militancy, an unprecedented strike wave, heightened left-wing radicalism and heated class struggles. The entire political environment was filled with talk of revolution inspired by events in Russia and anti-capitalist and anti-colonial upheavals worldwide. Ruling-class response came in the form of “Red Scare” repression lasting well into the early 1920s.

Not coincidentally, 1919 also witnessed some 38 broadly defined “race riots” during the “Red Summer,” in which vicious white mob attacks on Black communities north and south were met by African-American armed resistance from returned veterans, among others. Spurred on by local and national press accounts that blamed Black perpetrators for the violence, white mobs rampaged in Charleston, Omaha, Knoxville, Washington, D.C., Chicago and elsewhere. In Wilson’s Wash­ington, following sensationalized newspaper accounts of a Black crime wave and rumored attacks on white women, white Marine and sailor-led mobs randomly attacked Black residents from July 18-21. Veteran-led members of the Black community fought back. The riot, described by some as the start of a long-anticipated “race war,” left hundreds injured and 15 dead.

Chicago’s Black population increased by upwards of 50,000 after 1916. Individual attempts to move from the city’s immensely overcrowded South Side “Black Belt” through 1918 were met by a series of bombings of Black homes in previously all-white neighborhoods as organized “athletic club” gangs and others attacked African Americans who crossed invisible “color lines.” Intensified competition for work and urban space, feeding a generalized climate of racist fear, ultimately touched off two weeks of violence that left over 500 injured and 38 dead, among them 23 African Americans, and some 1000 Black families homeless.

The “Red Summer” was long. In one of the year’s worst episodes, in October in rural Phillips County, Arkansas, an organizing meeting of a Black sharecroppers’ union ended in a gun fight in which a white detective died. That touched off a three-day indiscriminate “hunt” for Black people throughout the county by up to 1000 armed vigilantes assisted by the Army and American Legionnaires. The “Elaine Massacre” resulted in the murder of, according to one estimate, over 800 Black men, women and children.

Red and Black

Anti-communist “Red Scare” hysteria immediately replaced anti-German animus at war’s end, as not just the specter but the reality of revolution haunted ruling classes worldwide. Determined to halt the spread of the “Bolsheviki virus,” the U.S. surveillance state turned its gaze toward the period’s increasing levels of African-American resistance, defiance and militancy and its obvious cause — “Bolshevik agitation.”

There certainly was a widespread influence of left-wing ideas and a mass anticipation of a better postwar future partly inspired by the Russian Revolution. And numerous African Americans, radicalized by the war at home and abroad, moved toward anti-capitalist and revolutionary positions. But in the white supremacist mind, any perceived challenges to the racial status quo or Black opinion deemed “subversive” had to have been “Bolshevik inspired” and therefore a legitimate target of the nation’s first anti-communist crusade.

In August 1919 a young J. Edgar Hoover became head of the Bureau of Investigation’s new General Intelligence Division (GID) dedicated to pursuing generic “Reds.” That anti-radical campaign readily melded anti-communism and racism. “Bolshevism,” after all, not only threatened the capitalist order but raised the unimaginable specter of “social equality,” i.e. “race mixing.”

Weekly BI field office reports on “Negro Activities,” the “Negro Press” and the “Negro agitation movement” funneled to Hoover were exchanged with reports from Military Intelligence, the State Department, the Post Office, and state and local “red squads.” Not about to identify racism as the cause of the Red Summer’s violence, those reports portrayed virtually all African-American activism as “communist inspired” or the work of manipulated dupes. As a result, “redbaiting” born in that period became an ongoing tactic used to delegitimize African-American struggles for political and civil rights and an end to mob violence and lynch law.

There of course were African-American radicals attracted by the early communist positions on national minorities and self-determination, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. There were those such as the left-socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, editors of the militant Messenger; and the highly influential Hubert Harrison, said to be “the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals,” who never became communists. Such was the case of Jamaican nationalist and revolutionary socialist Wilfred Domingo, soon to become a major critic of Marcus Garvey’s brand of pro-capitalist Black separatism. There also were those who eventually did move into the Communist Party. Notable among them was Cyril Briggs, the editor of the militantly uncompromising monthly Crusader (1918-1922).

An advocate of armed self-defense, at the height of the Red Summer Briggs founded the clandestine African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), soon to recruit Black veterans nationwide with its call for those willing to “go the limit.” Joining the ABB inner circle were a number of influential Caribbean emigres, many of whom would also move into the early CP. Among others, that group included the radical poet Claude McKay; army veteran Harry Haywood; the Socialist Party left-winger Otto Huiswoud; Briggs’ associate Richard B. Moore, described in BI files as “the most outspoken, daring, and radical of all the negro (sic) Reds;” and behind-the-scenes organizer Grace Campbell, the first African-American woman to join the Party. Propelled by developments during and immediately after the war and influential across a much broader spectrum of Black activists, such left wing militants infused what became the war era’s “New Negro” movement with their radical political perspectives.

The “New Negro”

The World War at home and abroad spawned a new international awareness not only among Black middle-class intellectuals but a broader mass. It stimulated a growing Pan African and diasporic consciousness in tandem with revolutionary politics, inspired not just by the Russian Revolution but by the massive anti-colonial stirrings by peoples of color worldwide. War and reaction forged the “New Negro” generation, an ideologically diverse and often overlapping array of Black nationalists, integrationists and separatists, Pan-Africanists, socialists and early communists not about to step backward in time. Its center was Harlem during and especially after the war, a vibrant “Black Mecca” of intermeshed radical politics, a reclaiming of history, identity and cultural expression, blossoming in the 1920s as the “Harlem Renaissance.”

“New Negro” militancy spurred the growth of organized responses to the era’s racist onslaught as diverse as the NAACP and Marcus Garvey’s separatist United Negro Improvement Association. The NAACP, with its demand for civil rights and an end to white mob murder, saw its rolls grow from 9200 in January 1918 to over 91,000 by the end of 1919 as new members, often more militant than the national leadership, flocked into nearly 300 local branches. Garvey first arrived in Harlem in 1916. His UNIA by late 1919 had become the largest mass movement of African Americans in the country’s history, with a membership of several hundred thousand.

During the presidential race of 1920, Republican Warren Harding promised to take the country back to its pre-war state, a “return to normalcy.” That campaign promise certainly sent different messages across the “color line” as Harding took the White House with over 60% of the popular vote. The Great Migration continued through the 1920s, as worse-than-prewar agricultural prices and relentless “normalcy” of Jim Crow violence ravaged the South. So did nationwide reaction, fear and fundamentalism which lashed out against all those not belonging to the White Republic.  

For many African Americans, the decade began with the worst urban “race riot” of the postwar period, at Tulsa, Oklahoma from May 31-June 1, 1921. It resulted in upwards of 300 African-American deaths and the torching of 35 city blocks of Greenwood, formerly the wealthiest Black community in the country. Apparently, that attack on the entire community reached the ferocity it did because armed and organized Black men, among them numbers of veterans, defied the white mob rule and fought back. Rather than pointing to the local Ku Klux Klan chapter with its estimated 3200 members, federal investigators at the time attempted to blame African Blood Brotherhood for inciting the violence.

Yet regardless of the reaction that set in during the “Roaring Twenties,” the war period transformed the outlook of an entire Black generation not about to return to the subjugation of the pre-war era. While in no way making the world safe for African Americans, the World War I era planted the seeds deep in the furrows of popular memory for what eventually would become the modern civil rights movement and a deeper Black liberation struggle.

Allen Ruff is a member of Solidarity in Madison, Wisconsin. He is an independent historian with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.