Tag Archives: black history

“Don’t drop them pies!” (Women’s Welfare Work in WWI: Part 2)


Salvation Army Worker Serving Donuts to the AEF; Image credit:  Smithsonian Magazine

“August 10, 1917
I get my appointment and go loco w joy. It seems to me my reason for existence is explained. All my training and experience seem to have fitted me for just this. Bradford Knapp talks and I get two ideas. Unless one gives all one is not giving enough, and if one can go one should. The other thing was that to our generation has come this great chance for sacrifice. There is a joy in my heart that this has come. Everyone is awfully good about my going away. I did not know how much my work meant to me.”

–Diary of Mary Paxton Keeley

On April 6, 1917, Congress voted for a declaration of war on Germany. War had already been raging for three years. And for the whole of those three years, American women had been involved in the care and comfort of European soldiers and civilians. Now that American men would be fighting, American women took on service as a patriotic duty.  But not all women were given an equal opportunity to serve, nor did all American soldiers receive equal access to the welfare services.

Recommended Reading:

America’s Women:  400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Gail Collins

The Women Who Fried Donuts and Dodged Bombs on the Front Lines of WWI, Smithsonian Magazine

Credits for Primary Sources:

Diary of Mary Paxton Keeley, read with permission from the State Historical Society of Missouri

Letters of Emma Young Dickson, read with permission from the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries

The overseas war record of the Winsor school, 1914-1919, (Constance Cunningham’s letter)

Canteening Overseas, 1917-1919, (Memoir of Marian Baldwin)

Into the Breach, American Women Overseas in World War I, Dorothy and Carl Schneider

“My wound is all healed.” (The 372nd Infantry: Mini Episode)

African American Soldiers Arriving in France, Image Credit: National Archives

September 3, 1918

My Dear Mr Brimley,

… I am glad to know that my people are doing their bit to win the war, they sure make good soldiers and seem to take delight in sticking Fritz with a bayonet or clubbing him with the butt end of a rifle, but their main weapon is the hand grenade…

I am writing to the new commander today asking for special duty as patrol officer and I hope I can get it as it affords a fellow a better chance for promotion and excitement all his own and then I have a score to pay Fritz for leaving a scar on my face, and I want to get him where I can fix him to my own taste. My best regards to Mrs Brimley … and all my friends, and write when you have the time to.

Yours very respectfully,

James W Alston

While the majority of black soldiers serving in World War I were assigned to non-combat jobs such as loading and unloading cargo ships, and burying the dead, soldiers in the 93rdDivision did see combat. This division included Alston’s, as well as the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters.  Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts of that regiment were the first Americans of any race to receive France’s Croix de Guerre.  The Stuff You Missed in History podcast has a very informative episode about the Harlem Hellfighters.

Alston’s letters, as well as other primary sources pertaining to African American soldiers in WWI, are at the Digital Public Library of America.

Other Sources

World War I:  African-American Soldiers Battle More than Enemy Forces,” Library of Congress

“One Hundred Years Ago, the Harlem Hellfighters Bravely Led the US into WWI,” Smithsonian Magazine

African-American WWI ‘Harlem Hell Fighters’ Proved their mettle, Patriotism in Combat,” U.S. Army

Official History of the American Negro in the World War, W. Allison Sweeney

“I have the right not to vote.” (Women’s Suffrage: Mini Episode)

Suffrage poster: “We are ready to Work beside you/ Fight beside you and/ Die beside you – Let Us Vote Beside You/ Vote for Woman Suffrage November 6th,” 1917. Courtesy of the New York State Library.
Suffrage Poster, November 6, 1917
Image credit: New York State Library.

Topeka Feb 11, 1887

To Gov Martin

Dear Sir:

Ten thousand Women who have enough rights without voting and also plenty to do, to attend to their own affairs without meddling with men’s business, ask you to Veto this Suffrage bill.  We don’t want to vote, and go to the polls with n****rs — and all kinds of woman.

Mrs G. Monroe
and thousands of others

We’ve all heard of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, but there were millions of women and men who spoke for, and against, women’s suffrage.  Today’s mini-episode shares a few of those voices.

Other podcasts about women’s suffrage:

History Chicks

Stuff You Missed in History Class

Credits for Primary Sources:

The letters of Effie B. Frostand Mrs. G. Monroe, as well as the Woman Suffrage Pamphlet by Rev. Stephen Estey, are read with permission from the Kanas State Historical Society.

The petition by Mrs. Kate T. F. Cornell is in the public domain and available at docsteach.org.

Anti-Suffrage Essays by Massachusetts Women is in the public domain and available at gutenberg.org.

The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia, James L. Conyers Jr., Nancy J. Dawson, Lee E. Thompson, Mary Joan Thompson

“The Great Schism,” Ta-nehisi Coates for The Atlantic

“Our child cries for you.” (Loved Ones of Black Civil War Soldiers: Mini Episode)

Provost Guard of the 107th Colored Infantry, Fort Corcoran, Washington, D.C., 1863
Image credit: pbs.org

Carlisle, PA
November 21, 1864

Mr Abraham Lincoln,  

I want to know, Sir, if you please, whether I can have my son released from the army.   He is all the support I have now.   His father is dead and his brother; that was all the help that I had …

Today’s episode is a miniature one!  The Civil War is a familiar topic to most of us, and there are several podcasts on the topic.  Less familiar is the effect of the war on black women, who faced unique challenges while their loved ones were fighting.  Families in the North worried that their sons and husbands would be enslaved if captured by the Confederate Army.  Some whites who were angry about black fighting for the Union took it out on the family members that the soldiers left behind.   Today we hear a small piece of those families’ stories.


The letters were read with permission from the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.

Other podcasts about the Civil War:

Key Battles of the Civil War
“The Massachusetts 54th Regiment,” Stuff You Missed in History Class

“Missouri’s African American Troops,” Missouri State Archives
“8th Regiment Infantry United States Colored Troops,” National Park Service
“United States Colored Troops,” Missouri State Archives

“Nothing here but money.” (The Great Migration: Part 3)

“In the North the African American had more educational opportunities.” Jacob Lawrence
Image credit: The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

“South State Street was in its glory then, a teeming Negro street with crowded theatres, restaurants and cabarets.  And excitement from noon to noon.  Midnight was like day.  The street was full of workers and gamblers, prostitutes and pimps, church folks and sinners.” — Langston Hughes

In many ways, the North delivered on its promise.  The migrants enjoyed higher wages, better education for their children, and the opportunity to participate in the political process.  Perhaps most refreshingly, they no longer had to behave in a subservient manner to white people. Letters from migrants to their Southern friends and families, drew more and more blacks out of the South.

 Dear Sir:

I take this method of thanking you for your early responding and the glorious effect of the treatment. Oh. I do feel so fine. Dr., the treatment reach[ed] me almost ready to move. I am now housekeeping again. I like it so much better than rooming. Well, Dr., with the aid of God I am making very good. I make $75 per month. I am carrying enough insurance to pay me $20 per week if I am not able to be on duty. I don’t have to work hard, don’t have to mister every little white boy comes along. I haven’t heard a white man call a colored a n*****r you know now–since I been in the state of PA. I can ride in the electric street and steam cars anywhere I get a seat. I don’t care to mix with white. What I mean–I am not crazy about being with white folks, but if I have to pay the same fare, I have learn[ed] to want the same accommodation. And if you are first in a place here shopping, you don’t have to wait until the white folks get through trading. Yet amid all this, I shall ever love the good old South and I am praying that God may give every well wisher a chance to be a man regardless of his color, and if my going to the front would bring about such conditions, I am ready any day.  Well, Dr., I don’t want to worry you but read between lines; and maybe you can see a little sense in my weak statement. The kids are in school every day. I have only two, and I guess that [is] all. Dr., when you find time, I would be delighted to have a word from the good old home state. Wife join[s] me in sending love you and yours.

 I am your friend and patient.

However, while wages were higher than the migrants had earned before, the pay was often low relative to the higher cost of living.  Many migrants were forced to live in overcrowded and dilapidated neighborhoods.  In Chicago, the newcomers clashed culturally with the Old Settlers–blacks who had lived in the city much longer.  And, they clashed violently with whites, in Chicago and throughout the North.

I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–

“The Forgotten March That Started the National Civil Rights Movement Took Place 100 Years Ago”

Blowing the Trumpet: The ‘Chicago Defender’ and Black Migration during World War I,” James R. Grossman

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, James R. Grossman

“In Motion: The African-American Experience (The Great Migration)

“The Origins and Diffusion of Racial Restrictive Covenants,”Michael Jones-Correa

The Journal of Negro History, Volume IV, 1919

The Journal of Negro History, Volume VI, 1921

“‘If You Can’t Push, Pull, If You Can’t Pull, Please Get Out of the Way’: The Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home in Chicago, 1896 to 1920,”Anne Meis Knupfer

The Defender: How a Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, Ethan Michaeli

The Great Black Migration:  A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Steven A. Reich

Negro Migration During the War,” Emmett J. Scott

“We will do any kind of work.” (The Great Migration: Part 2)

“The migration spread,” Jacob Lawrence
Image credit: The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

“We must have the Negro in the South … It is the only labor we have; it is the best we have—if we lost it, we [would] go bankrupt.” –Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, 1916

Prior to World War I, African Americans had plenty of reasons to want to leave the South.  But they had little reason to believe that life would be better in the North.  But the “War to End All Wars” created unprecedented labor opportunities for southern blacks.  Labor agents enticed many migrants with free transportation, but it was The Chicago Defender newspaper that probably did the most to encourage African Americans to move.  Its portrayal of a comfortable Black Chicago, and advertisements of a “Great Northern Drive,” led many southerners to write letters like this one:

Dear Sir: Please Sir, will you kindly tell me what is meant by the Great Northern Drive to take place May the 15th on Tuesday? It is a rumor all over town to be ready for the 15th of May to go in the drive. The Defender first spoke of the drive the 10th of February. My husband is in the North already preparing for our family, but hearing that the excursion will be $6.00 from here north on the 15th, and having a large family, I could profit by it if it is really true. Do please write me at once and say is there an excursion to leave the South. Nearly the whole of the South is getting ready for the drive or excursion as it is termed. Please write at once. We are sick to get out of the solid South.

Southern whites expressed alarm and anger that their valuable Negro labor was fleeing. Black leaders also questioned whether migration was the best course.  But there was little they could do to stop it.

Recommended Reading
The Warmth of Other Suns:  Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow:  Richard Wormser covers a lot of ground in a relative few pages.  It opens with Reconstruction and ends at 1954.


I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Benjamin ‘Pap’ Singleton,” Kansas State Historical Society

The Journal of Negro History, Volume IV, 1919

The Journal of Negro History, Volume VI, 1921

Blowing the Trumpet: The ‘Chicago Defender’ and Black Migration during World War I,” James R. Grossman

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration,” James R. Grossman

Black Workers and the Great Migration North,” Carole Marks

The Defender: How a Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, Ethan Michaeli

Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, Brian Kelly

The Great Black Migration:  A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Steven A. Reich

Negro Migration During the War,” Emmett J. Scott