Returning from WWII meant the realization of The American Dream for some, but for most African American G.I.s it meant the continuation of segregation. The all black 15th regiment parading up Fifth Avenue, New York City, en route to an Army camp in New York State in 1916. Why was this organized, and what was its impact? On the eve of American entry into the war, democracy was a distant reality for African Americans. Local whites were determined to teach Lewis and other black people a lesson. Although not nearly as respected as any of the white soldiers involved in the war effort, African American combat troops, in many respects, were much better off than the laborers. See our, Read a limited number of articles each month, You consent to the use of cookies and tracking by us and third parties to provide you with personalized ads, Unlimited access to washingtonpost.com on any device, Unlimited access to all Washington Post apps, No on-site advertising or third-party ad tracking. Moreover, the war transformed the racial and political consciousness of a generation of black people, especially those who served in the military. You can unsubscribe at any time. By clicking “I agree” below, you consent to the use by us and our third-party partners of cookies and data gathered from your use of our platforms. On February 17, 1919, tens of thousands of New Yorkers welcomed home the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment with a massive parade on Fifth Avenue and into Harlem. The army remained rigidly segregated and the War Department relegated the majority of black troops to labor duties. Today, 100 years later, we still see the contradictions of American democracy and the endurance of white supremacy. The death of Charles Lewis was the first ominous warning that this would not be the case. It Didn't. African-American soldiers were celebrated as returning heroes after the war. Around midnight, a mob of approximately 100 masked men stormed the jail. It didn't. Racial violence worsened, the most horrific example being a massacre that took place in July 1917 in East St. Louis that left over one hundred black people dead and entire neighborhoods reduced to ashes. Nevertheless, the war marked a turning point in their struggles for freedom and equal rights that would continue throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. The number of lynchings of black Americans skyrocketed to 76 by the end of the year, with several black veterans, some still in uniform, amongst the victims. One hundred years ago on Nov. 11, a date now commemorated as Veteran’s Day — which will be observed on Monday, Nov. 12, in 2018 — the Great War came to an end. It didn't. W.E.B. World War I was in many ways the beginning of the 20th-century civil rights movement. The conference marked a milestone moment in the political organization of black people throughout the diaspora and in the larger history of African independence. Historic Context for the African-American Military Experience (PDF) provides a detailed account of African Americans in the Army in World War I and a brief history of African American Naval Service, 1865–1917. With the armistice, African Americans fully expected that their service and sacrifice would be recognized. Chad Williams in Time Magazine: African-American veterans hoped their service in World War I would secure their rights at home. Chad Williams is Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Brandeis University. Du Bois saw the war as a defining moment in the future of Africa. A little over a month later, Lewis, after being discharged from Camp Sherman in Ohio, was back in his small town of Tyler Station, Ky. On the night of Dec. 15, a police officer stormed into Lewis’ shack, accusing him of robbery. As a New York newspaper wrote after the lynching, “And the point is made that every loyal American negro who has served with the colors may fairly ask: ‘Is this our reward for what we have done?’”. W.E.B. For returning black G.I.s it was a totally different experience. The hundreds of thousands of African Americans who served in the U.S. Army during World War I and returned home as heroes soon faced many more battles over their equality in American society. In the face of public pressure, the Army created two all-black combat units, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions. They took the words of W. E. B. Conditions for African Americans after World War I. The famed author, diplomat and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson named these bloody months of 1919 the “Red Summer.”. We rely on readers like you to uphold a free press. Du Bois to heart, when he wrote in the May 1919 editorial “Returning Soldiers”: Make war for democracy. They had labored and shed blood for democracy abroad and now expected full democracy at home. Black people emerged from the war bloodied and scarred. White soldiers were paid $13 per month, from which no clothing allowance was deducted. While they were celebrated in the streets of New York, they also soon encountered a wave of hatred and violence. The Real Reason the Electoral College Exists, Sign up to receive the top stories you need to know now on politics, health and more, © 2020 TIME USA, LLC. In his April 2, 1917, war declaration address before Congress, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” With this evocative phrase, Wilson framed the purpose and higher cause of American participation in the war. Historians explain how the past informs the present. You also agree to our Terms of Service. Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era, New Yorkers welcomed home the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment with a massive parade, World War I and the African-American experience.