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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

World War I and Postwar Era

The experiences of African American soldiers in World War I and upon their return caused civil rights organizations like the NAACP to increase their efforts for racial justice. The efforts of black servicemen were extensively documented in a 600-page history by Emmett J. Scott, a special assistant to the Secretary of War in charge of “recruitment, training, and morale of the African American soldiers.” In the final chapter of his book, titled “What the Negro Got Out of the War,” Scott said:

Briefly stated, the Negroes did their full share in the great struggle to make the world safe for democracy. . . .

What has the American Negro got out of the war? Time alone can bring the full answer to this sweeping question. To some of the manifold implications which the query itself involves, however, some answers can already be made. For one thing, the war has brought to the American Negro a keener and more sharply defined consciousness, not only of his duties as a citizen, but of his rights and privileges as a citizen of the United States. The colored people of America performed to the utmost of their ability the duties which the war imposed upon all citizens, black and white alike.

A summary of what the Negro wants may be stated: He wants justice in the courts substituted for lynching, the privilege of serving on juries, the right to vote, and the right to hold office, like other citizens. He wants, moreover, universal suffrage, better educational facilities, the abolition of the “Jim Crow” car, discontinuance of unjust discriminatory regulations and segregation in the various departments of the Government, the same military training for Negro youths as for white, the removal of “dead lines” in the recognition of fitness for promotion in the army and navy, the destruction of the peonage system, an economic wage scale to be applied to whites and blacks alike, better housing conditions for Negro employees in industrial centers, better sanitary conditions in the Negro sections of cities, and reforms in the Southern penal institutions. If, after having fulfilled the obligations of citizenship Negroes do not get these things, then indeed, they feel, will the war have been fought in vain.

From “Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War, 1919,” image 555

  • According to Scott, what did African Americans get from the war?
  • What do you think Scott meant by a “keener and more sharply defined consciousness”? What did this consciousness prompt African Americans to seek?
  • Imagine that you were an African American soldier returning from war to Jim Crow America. How would you have felt about the discrimination you experienced? Write a letter to the president explaining the changes needed in American society.

The NAACP had started, almost since its inception, asking the courts to overturn discriminatory laws. In 1915 and 1916, it achieved two important victories in the cases of Guinn v. United States and Charles Buchanan v. William Warley. Read the text on these two cases; describe the Court’s decision in each case. Why were these cases important? How did those who wished to discriminate circumvent these decisions?

Marian Anderson receives the Spingarn Medal from Eleanor Roosevelt

Marian Anderson receives the Spingarn Medal from Eleanor Roosevelt Silver gelatin print. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Courtesy of the NAACP

In the 1920s, Harlem, a section of New York City in which many African Americans lived, became a center of cultural activity. Because of the prodigious outpouring of philosophy, literature, art, drama, and music produced in Harlem during that time, the era became known as the Harlem Renaissance. (“Renaissance” means “rebirth” and is often applied to a period of vigorous artistic expression, such as the flowering of culture that began in Italy in the late thirteenth century.)

The African American artists and intellectuals active in this period explored new ways to express the experiences of black people in the United States. They experimented with new forms that celebrated African American creativity and identity.

Read about the various artists who were part of the Harlem Renaissance in the section titled “The Harlem Renaissance and the Flowering of Creativity.” Read also about the Harmon Foundation that supported some of those artists with cash awards. Choose one of the artists, writers, or musicians in whom you are interested and learn more about his or her work. Write a letter nominating that individual for a Harmon Foundation award. How did that person’s work reflect the experiences of black people in the United States? What insights can be gained from studying the person’s work today, many decades after it was created?