African American Veteran Petitions for Equal Rights, 1919

                This year, African American History Month coincides with the beginning of the centennial of World War I.  Connecticut newspaper titles from this fascinating era were very recently selected for digitization (http://www.ctstatelibrary.org/cdnp). A short review of these newspapers suggests that they will contribute to illuminating the intersection of the Great War (1914-1919) and the fight for civil rights in the U.S.Soldiers clip

An article from March 3, 1919 Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, for example, is headlined “Colored Men Lodge Protest: Claim Discrimination in Places of Accommodation at Hartford Hearing.” The article begins: “Urging the passage of a bill which they said would assure them equal rights in places of public accommodation, colored people from around the state appeared before the legislative judiciary committee, Wednesday afternoon, asserting: ‘If we’re hungry and we have the money to pay the price, give us the privileges of American citizens, and allow us to eat where we choose.’” A number of prominent leaders are mentioned as among those addressing the committee: George W. Crawford, a New Haven lawyer; the Rev. C. F. Luther, chairman of an NAACP chapter; William B. Reed, representing the Colored Men’s Civic League of Hartford; and the Rev. C. Van Buren of Bridgeport. The bill was introduced at a political moment when it was hoped that any continuation of segregation would be perceived as especially hypocritical. Arguments in favor of the legislation were presented to the committee by J. L. Morgan, “a colored lad wounded seven times in action in France and beating the decorations of the French croix de guerre,” and by J. P. Peaker who warned, “If you don’t report favorably on this bill, we’ll’ feel that the cause, even in this late war, when 400,000 of our boys joined yours in France, has been in vain.” [Full article attached.]

The bill to which Peaker was referring was Senate Bill No. 199. It was introduced by Senator Bishop of the Eighth District and titled, “An Act Concerning Equal Rights in Place of Public Accom-modation, Amusement, Resort, Refreshment and Education.” It is recorded that it was rejected in April of 1919 by both houses of state government. It is likely to have been part of the national legislative agenda of groups like the NAACP who had urged African Americans to join up for the war in the hope that their participation would set the stage for the overturning of Jim Crow laws and a rollback of lynching and other extralegal racial violence. The discrimination faced by African American troops inside the army and immediately upon their return to US shores, however, shocked and outraged some of the most prominent African American supporters of World War I.

W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the African American intellectuals who had advocated Black enlistment, famously expressed his frustration with the results in the May 1919 issue of the Crisis:

We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb …

Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.

We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting.

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why. (http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1295987016703125.pdf)

Du Bois’ passionate appeal for a new civil rights movement did not prevent either a postwar increase in lynching or the infamous “Red Summer” of 1919, when, according to historians Mark Schneider and Arthur E. Barbeau, dozens of cities across the nation were roiled by mob attacks on African Americans. It will be interesting to learn, as both newspaper digitization and scholarship advance, just how African Americans in Connecticut responded to the tensions of that summer and built toward a new day, as well as toward new legislation for fairness in “Accommodation, Amusement, Resort, Refreshment, and Education.”

Thanks to Law Librarian Jean Kincaid for helping me identify the legislation referenced in the newspaper article.

For further research:

Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974.

Elizabeth J. Norman, editor. African American Connecticut Explored. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013

Mark Schneider. We Return Fighting: The Civil Rights Movement in the Jazz Age. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

Frank Stone. African American Connecticut: African Origins, New England Roots. Storrs, Conn.: Isaac N. Thut World Education Center, 1991

Note: The Connecticut State Library has digitized the service records of a number of African American World War I veterans. For example, see http://cslib.cdmhost.com/cdm/ref/collection/p4005coll1/id/329

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