“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.
… 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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–
“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.