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The Stars and Stripes

Historical Comprehension: Identifying Racial Bias

More than 350,000 African Americans served in the military during World War I, helping "make the world safe for democracy." While many served in support roles, a number fought side by side with French troops; 171 African American soldiers won the French Legion of Honor.

Yet African Americans on the front faced prejudice and discrimination, just as they did back in the United States. The Stars and Stripes perpetuated racial prejudice through stereotyping. Read the letter "From the Minute Man of 1776 to the Minute Men of 1918 in France" in the November 15, 1918, edition of the paper.

  • How did the letter attributed to the "Minute Man of 1776" perpetuate racial stereotypes?
  • What impression of African American solders was given in this piece?
  • How did Al Jolson's comedy routine at the Winter Garden Memorial Day matinee play upon popular prejudices?

Examine the article "'Taters and Suchlike to Be Grown by A.E.F." in the March 8, 1918, issue; the story reported on a general order requiring that gardens be planted behind the lines of every division. Explain how the reporter's attempts at humor played on racial stereotypes. Analyze the cartoon "Forward, Hoe — As Per G.O. 34" in the March 15, 1918, issue. Explain how the caricature reinforced the negative image of African-American soldiers.

The May 24, 1918, issue covered the story of two African-American soldiers who received the French Croix de Guerre. Read the story and consider the following questions:

  • What evidence, if any, do you find that the writer respected the African-American soldiers?
  • What evidence, if any, do you find of prejudice against African Americans?
  • How would describe the overall tone of the article?
  • The drawing below appeared on the same page as the article about the Croix de Guerre winners. What did the drawing convey? What is the significance of the text beneath the drawing? Do you find it ironic that it appeared on the same page as the article about African-American soldiers? Why or why not?

To learn more about African Americans in the military and at home during the World War I era, explore the "World War I and Postwar Society" section of the Library of Congress exhibition, "The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship." Then search The Stars and Stripes collection for coverage of African-American soldiers' contributions. How does the gap in reporting on African-American combat troops reflect the racial attitudes prevalent during the early part of the twentieth century?