On a Boat Alone: African American Wives Post WWI
Black History Month has given the Centennial Commission the opportunity to showcase the achievements of African Americans during WWI. One of WWrite’s latest posts about writer and suffragist Ida B. Well’s influence on Major Jasmine Motupalli’s military career highlighted the increased presence of political activism among African American women in the US during the WWI era (Major Motupalli's Post). WWI Centennial News reposted a Military Times article by former Illinois Senator and Ambassador to New Zealand, Carol Mosely Braun, in which she honors African American combat accomplishments in France. Her own grandfather, Thomas Davie, was posthumously awarded a U.S. Victory medal and fought in the Meuse-Argonne battle (Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun Article Link). This week, I wanted to talk about the wives of African American servicemen killed in combat.
As a writer from the American South, I’ve tried to find ways in my work to wrestle with the history of racism in my family. And, as anyone who has chosen to take this journey must know, it is a horrific, shameful discovery. My great-great uncle was President pro tempore of the State Senate for 25 years and was an admired leader. Yet my research in the archives of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia revealed he was one of the leaders of the south’s “Massive Resistance” strategy, an anti-desegregation campaign that made some public schools to close for 7 years so that African Americans would not be admitted. I learned, when talking to Rebecca Skloot about her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, that he might have been one of the doctors who first diagnosed Lacks with cancer, sending her to Johns Hopkins, where her world-changing cells were taken from her without permission. A state highway is named after him. My grandfather, a battalion surgeon in WWII, liberated concentration camps in Germany and saw the annihilating effects of anti-semitism, but he came home from the war and was forced to make separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites in his medical practice, which was run by my great-great Uncle, the State Senator. My grandfather despised and regretted it at the time and even more so after federal desegregation. My own parents and I are ashamed of the fact that, when I was young in the 1980s, I took swimming lessons at an American Legion pool that didn’t allow African Americans to swim in it, which I didn’t know about at the time. Located next door to my childhood home, it was one of the only public pools in my county.
When learning about our country’s history of slavery, segregation, and racism, the first tendency is to think about a group of targeted people—African Americans. But the real work of understanding comes when considering this history as a history of individuals. One by one. Colson Whitehead, the 2016 National Book Award Winner in Fiction for his novel The Underground Railroad, traces the story of one woman’s escape from slavery. Each page in his book is unsettling as it blows up in full detail every notion I’ve ever had about this shameful part of my country’s and my family’s past, bringing it painfully into the present and rendering the collective effects of racism more potent, more troubling.
Racism doesn’t just isolate groups. It also isolates individuals, and I think it is understanding this isolation that makes the experience of accomplished African Americans we celebrate this month more impressive. They were completely alone. The African American soldiers Ambassador Braun talks about lived alone with their accomplishments in WWI as their white counterparts were awarded medals. Their families, generations later, accepted their awards.
But African American servicemen weren’t the only ones alone in the face of post-WWI neglect. If they died during combat, their widows, daughters, or mothers became the inheritors. The “Gold Star Pilgrimages” serve as an interesting example. Around 1930, the American government created "Gold Star Pilgrimages," which were trips offered to women who had sons, husbands, and fathers buried overseas. Over 6,600 women participated in visiting military cemeteries and symbolic battle sites. 168 were African Americans. US segregation laws mandated that white women and African American women travel separately to France. Whites traveled on luxury liners while African Americans traveled on commercial steamers. In one instance, an overcrowded luxury liner of white women traveled next to a steamliner containing one African American woman. However, once they got to Europe—still segregated—they ate in the same restaurants and slept in the same hotels. Their loved ones gave the same sacrifice, but their memory was honored unequally.
Countless examples of WWI African American courage in isolation are waiting to be unveiled. I look forward to learning more about them as we head into the penultimate year of the centennial commemoration. If you have a story, I encourage you to contribute it.
—By Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Ph.D.