Black History Month, February 2015: “There is need of an aroused public sentiment. . . ”
On May 24, 1919, a date five months after the opening of the Paris Peace Conference at which the Allied victors of the First World War were meeting to set the treaty terms that would punish Germany and the Central Powers, the Norwich Bulletin editorialized about the wave of lynchings of African Americans that was sweeping the United States. Entitled “Our Own Barbarity,” the editors wrote:
It is certainly apparent from the reports of the way in which people are taken out and strung up to trees and burned at the stake that all the barbarity is not confined to Germany or other sections of Europe, to Turkey or darkest Africa. We have conditions right here at home which need immediate and persistent attention. There is need of an aroused public sentiment which will insist upon the respect for the law.
The Bulletin editors were writing just before the summer of racial violence that became known as the “Red Summer” and just a few weeks after the first-ever National Conference on Lynching–attended by 2500 people–opened in New York City on May 5, 1919. Statistics presented at that conference documented the death by lynching of 3,224 persons in the previous thirty years. Contemporary historians say that between 1910 and 1919, there was an annual average of 62 lynchings a year.
One of the New England African American figures who tried to do just what the Norwich Bulletin urged– arouse public sentiment–was William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934). Disappointed by President Wilson’s segregation of the civil service and by the President’s refusal to push a federal anti-lynching bill in Congress, Trotter declared his intention to go to the Paris Peace Talks to bring world opinion to bear. A short article in the June 2, 1919 Norwich Bulletin entitled “Requests Message to Congress in Paris” reports on his project.
In Paris, delegates were already debating a “racial equity proposal” that would accord equal treatment to aliens in member countries of the new League of Nations and another that would secure minority rights for oppressed nationalities in the new nations being granted independence. Trotter hoped to use the irony of the situation to pressure Wilson to act.
The Wilson administration was not warm to the activist’s plan. When Trotter’s application for a passport was rejected, he disguised himself as a cook and worked a tramp steamer to Paris. Upon his arrival, he reportedly told the French press that “the Negro race wants full liberty and equality of rights as the fruit of the World War.” It is said that when Trotter returned from France, thousands welcomed him in New York City. A federal anti-lynching law was never passed.
The Norwich Bulletin, for some of the most important years of anti-lynching activism (1910-1922), is available for searching via Chronicling America, the historic newspaper database of the Library of Congress. For more blogs about some of historical topics you might find there, visit the Connecticut Digital Newspaper Project website.
For Further Research
Gibson, Robert A. “The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950.” Curriculum Unit 79.02.04, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Accessed on 2/3/15.
Hagedorn, Ann. Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. Simon and Schuster, 1919. Accessed on February 5, 2015.
O’Reilly, Kenneth, “The Jim Crow Policies of Woodrow Wilson.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 17 ( Autumn, 1997), pp. 117-121. Accessed on 2/3/15.
Puttkammer, Charles W. and Ruth Worthy. “William Monroe Trotter, 1872-1934.” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 43, No. 4 (October 1958), pp. 298-316. Accessed on 2/3/15.