World War I galvanized the black community in their effort to make America truly democratic by ensuring full citizenship for all its people. Black soldiers, who continued to serve in segregated units, were involved in protest against racial injustice o n the home front and abroad.
Blacks and whites in the newly-formed NAACP and other organizations led the onslaught against discrimination and segregation in the United States. Numerous NAACP files labeled “Soldier Troubles” document the efforts made to prevent mistreatment of African Americans in the military. The NAACP also pursued voting rights and worked to dismantle various forms of segregation through the courts. Painstakingly, one case at a time, one law at a time, they confronted the racial inequities in the legal system. The Library's extensive civil rights collections document the efforts during this period on the part of blacks and whites to erase the legacy of slavery.
African American artists, actors, and writers led the battle against intellectual and artistic bias. Between the wars, and even during the deprivations of the Great Depression, there was a great crescendo of African American artistic expression in the period known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” Paintings, drawings, classical music, jazz, blues, poetry, novels, plays, and dance abounded during this era and won world acclaim. But artistic and intellectual achievement did not win for blacks political, economic, and educational parity with whites. Racism remained a powerful force in American life.
Fighting at Home and Abroad
Chronicle of the African American Soldier in World War I
Emmett J. Scott worked for eighteen years as the private secretary to Booker T. Washington. He became a Special Assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker during World War I in order to oversee the recruitment, training, and morale of the African American soldiers.
This “profusely illustrated” 512-page volume gives a “complete and authentic narration . . . of the participation of American soldiers of the Negro race in the World War for democracy,” and a “full account of the war work organizations of colored men and women.” It also documents other civilian activities including the work of the Red Cross, the Young Men and Young Women's Christian Association, and the War Camp Community Service. Carter G. Woodson and Alice Dunbar Nelson collaborated with Scott in the preparation of this volume.
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Sharing the African American Cultural Heritage Abroad
During World War I many black troops were eager to fight but most provided support services. Only a small percentage were actually involved in combat. Yet, the African American presence in France—helping in any capacity—often elicited overwhelming gratitude from the French. Both the French and the American troops enjoyed listening to African American bands who sometimes introduced blues and jazz rhythms previously unknown to their listeners. This is a 1919 photograph of the 803rd Pioneer Infantry Band on board the U.S.S. Philippines in Brest Harbor, France.
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Jazz Master James Reese Europe
African American regiments in World War I were usually accompanied by bands. The most famous was the band of the 369th Infantry, led by James Reese Europe, a prominent musician whose syncopated style animated the dancing of Vernon and Irene Castle, creating a craze for social dancing. These army bands became immensely popular in France, both among American troops and the French public, introducing many Europeans to jazz and ragtime rhythm and African American performance styles. Vaudeville star Noble Sissle, who belonged to Europe's band in war and peace, prepared this biography of Europe, who was murdered soon after the war by a crazed band member. The Memoirs include much information about the racial climate in the U.S. and France.
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True Sons Of Freedom
More than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor. In response to protests of discrimination and mistreatment from the black community, several hundred African American men received officers' training in Des Moines, Iowa. By October 1917, over six hundred African Americans were commissioned as captains and first and second lieutenants.
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Guinn V. United States—One Victory During the Quest
One of the many methods used to keep African Americans from voting was the grandfather clause, which held that a man could only vote if his grandfather had voted. Poll taxes, literacy tests, voting fraud, violence, and intimidation also proved effective means of barring African Americans from the ballot box.
The NAACP successfully fought against grandfather clauses in court. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Guinn v. United States that the grandfather clauses in the Maryland and Oklahoma constitutions were null and void, because they violated the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
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Another NAACP Victory
In order to keep people of color out of their neighborhoods, cities called for racial restrictive covenants that segregated housing. The NAACP attacked this practice in the courts in the case of Charles Buchanan v. William Warley. In the 1916 decision, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an ordinance mandating that African Americans live in certain sections of Louisville, Kentucky. As a result of this case, whites resorted to private restrictive covenants, in which individual residents agreed to sell or rent only to whites, and de facto housing segregation continued.
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Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs
In this report Mary Church Terrell recounts her role as founding president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, a confederation of black women's service clubs dedicated to instilling racial pride. Founded in 1895, the group was intent upon improving social and moral conditions in the African American community. The organization founded settlement houses for migrant women, orphanages, day nurseries, kindergartens, evening schools for adults, clinics, and homes for the aged. The group advocated the abolition of sexism and racism, actively supported voting rights for all including women, and promoted the anti-lynching crusade.
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The Harlem Renaissance and the Flower of Creativity
The Harlem Renaissance: Shuffle Along
In literature and the visual arts, the Harlem Renaissance—insofar as it can be defined—is described principally by a series of novels, books of poetry, paintings, and sculpture. Although African Americans wrote symphonies and sonatas in the period between the world wars, it was the nightclub music that seems to capture the period. The musical show Shuffle Along, which opened on May 23, 1921, and ran for over 500 performances, was written by Eubie Blake, with lyrics by Noble Sissle, and the book by the vaudeville team Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lines. Both Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters served in the chorus line. Paul Robeson was briefly in the cast as a member of a barbershop quartet. The libretto is open to the scene containing, “I'm Just Wild about Harry,” the hit of the show.
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Nella Larsen—Identity Crisis
Born in 1891 in Chicago to a Danish mother and a West Indian father, Nella Larsen keenly sensed the difficulty of being a child of two worlds, especially after the death of her father and her mother's marriage to a Dane. Educated at Fisk University in Nashville, the University of Copenhagen, the Lincoln Hospital Training Program in New York, and the New York Public Library Training School, Larsen worked as a nurse and as a children's librarian but also wrote articles and novels including Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). She received the Harmon Foundation Bronze Award in 1929.
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To Make a Poet Black and Bid Him Sing
Countee Cullen was another gifted poet during the Harlem Renaissance. Adopted son of a New York Methodist minister and trained at New York University and Harvard, he was the author of several volumes of poetry, including Color (1925), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), and Copper Sun (1927). In this letter Cullen acknowledges the announcement that he was named the first recipient of the Harmon Foundation literature award for his volume, Color.
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The Harmon Foundation—Providing Wings for the Artists
The Harmon Foundation, established by endowments in 1922, provided playgrounds throughout the country, tuition payments and vocational guidance for students, educational programs for nurses, and awards for “constructive achievements among Negroes.” The areas of competition for monetary awards to African Americans included business, education, farming, fine arts, literature, music, race relations, religious service, and science. The nomination files for these awards provide a rich source of information about African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance period.
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Marian Anderson—World-Famous Contralto
Like many African American artists, Marian Anderson, born in Philadelphia in 1902, achieved fame in Europe before doors of opportunity were opened in the U.S. In 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D. C., first lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her D.A.R. membership, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes offered Anderson the use of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. She accepted and more than 75,000 people attended the event. Later in the year, when the NAACP awarded their Spingarn Medal to Anderson, Mrs. Roosevelt made the presentation. Anderson's concert and other assaults against unjust treatment of African American performers ultimately led to the lowering of barriers in the arts.
[Marian Anderson receives the Spingarn Medal from Eleanor Roosevelt]. Silver gelatin print. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (8-12)
Courtesy of the NAACP
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Harlem Renaissance—The Quest for Artistic Freedom
During the 1920s African American art and literature gained recognition as a significant component of world culture. Numerous people of color from the South and the Caribbean moved to Harlem in New York City, where the blending of cultures helped foster a flowering of the arts. Such a prodigious amount of poetry, novels, other literary writing, music, and art was produced during the era between the world wars that it is now known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes was one of the foremost and versatile writers of this talented group. Although Hughes was quite critical of Booker T. Washington's accommodationist philosophy, this poem also evinces his understanding of the circumstances under which Washington labored.
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Multi-Talented Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston, born in Eatonville, Florida, was a writer, anthropologist, and folklorist who received her training at Morgan Academy in Baltimore, Howard University in Washington, and Barnard College and Columbia University in New York. Included among Hurstons many writings are three novels, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Some of the materials Hurston collected as a folklorist are included in the Library's motion picture, photographic, manuscript, and sound recording archives.
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Death Sentences in Scottsboro, Alabama
In 1931 nine young black males, one of whom was only fourteen years old, were convicted of raping two white females in a freight train passing through Alabama. Eight of them were sentenced to death. At the trial in Scottsboro, Alabama, the black youths declared their innocence. The case generated much national and international attention. Several years later, after numerous legal battles, the courts reversed the convictions against the men. Scottsboro Limited includes four poems protesting the treatment of the group widely known as the “Scottsboro Boys,” and a play in verse by Langston Hughes, with illustrations by Prentiss Taylor, a white artist.
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