From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Historian's Corner: Jennifer Keene
On February 1st's edition of the WWI Centennial News Podcast, Episode 108, host Theo Mayer spoke with Professor Jennifer Keene about the experience of the African American community during the Great War. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: February is Black History Month, so we'll be bringing you perspectives and stories about how World War I and its aftermath deeply affected the African American community and led directly to the Civil Rights Movement some decades later. So this week, we've asked Dr. Jennifer Keene to join us to explore the subject.
Dr. Keene is the former Department of History Chair at California's Chapman University. Her list of publications, accolades and recognitions are, well, simply put, impressive. And with a heavy emphasis not only on World War I, but also on the teaching of the subject. And appropriate to this month's theme, some of her publications include The Long Journey Home, African American World War I Veterans and Veteran's Policies, The Memory of the Great War in the African American Community, A comparative study of White and Black American Soldiers during the First World War, Wilson and Race Relations, among others. Dr. Keene, it's really great to have you on the program.
Jennifer Keene: Very pleased to be here. Thank you.
Theo Mayer: Dr. Keene, for context, could you summarize the basic segregationist position and policies of the US and the US Military in 1917, and how did the black community respond?
Jennifer Keene: The wartime Army is rigidly segregated, and the Army places about 89% of African American soldiers in non-combatant roles. And most African American units are officered by a white. It was really thanks to groups like the relatively recently founded NAACP, the black press, black universities putting pressure on the government that opened up some opportunities for African American soldiers to be placed in combatant roles, and basically be given the opportunity to prove that they could fight as bravely and as effectively as white soldiers.
Theo Mayer: And that really leads to the next point. During the war, the 369th, the 370th, and other African American units really distinguished themselves- not just as good soldiers, but as exemplary soldiers.
Jennifer Keene: It had been the hope of the black press, civil rights organizations, civil rights leaders, that by placing black soldiers in highly visible combatant positions, they would be able to demonstrate that they deserved equal rights. And so the exploits of units, like the 369th infantry regiment that became known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, received a lot of publicity in the black press. Now, unfortunately, people, especially in the white community, were not looking for facts to challenge the racial stereotypes that they already held. So if you compare the way that the 369th infantry regiment was portrayed in the black press versus the white press, you see very important differences. The black press is going to emphasize their manhood , their heroism, their cool thinking under fire. The white press is going to emphasize their savagery, their... Really fitting the story into racial caricatures and stereotypes that already exists.
Theo Mayer: Now, one of the things we've tried to cover on the podcast are some of the other (African American) units. 369th is probably the best known. But there were a lot of others, weren't there?
Jennifer Keene: In terms of combatant units, there were four infantry regiments that were given to the French and fought with the French for the duration of the war. And then of course there was the 92nd Division, which was an entirely African American division. And this was a complete division, meaning that it was not just infantry, but you had artillery, you had signal corps, you had all the component parts of division that were being staffed by black soldiers. So the 92nd Division stayed with the Americans, and had a very different experience than the four regiments that fought with the French. And so what we see in the post-war period is that the few stumbles of the 92nd Division get a lot of play within Army circles, and become used as evidence again and again to show the limitations of black soldiers to fight in modern warfare, where the exploits of the regiments that went and fought with the French get really de-emphasized in the post war period.
Theo Mayer: Okay. So the fighting's now over and it's time to come home. And I know it's not possible to generalize, but what are these men facing?
Jennifer Keene: Well, one of the things that they were facing was a sense of resistance on the part of many white communities, and so Red Summer is the nickname that's given to the summer of 1919, because of the 25 race riots that sweep through the country, and this is really emblematic of the way that they are going to have, in some communities, a violent reaction to any sense that they've come home expecting an improved status. They are also coming home to a post-war recession, where it's difficult for all veterans to find jobs. They're coming home, especially many of the combatant veterans, with their own readjustment difficulties, their own mental health issues, their own physical challenges. And I think that for many of these African American veterans, they had a decision to make. Most of them had come from the South, but of course the great migration during the course of the war had brought many African Americans to northern communities. And did they want to be part of that great migration, or did they want to go back to their original communities?
Theo Mayer: Okay. Then how would you characterize what World War I meant to the self image of the African American community in the US, and how big of a driver did it turn out to be for the Civil Rights Movement?
Jennifer Keene: Fighting back was the new ethos within the African American community after the First World War, and this was really a result of a few things that had happened during the war. First was the idea of being in uniform, fighting a war for democracy, and this just really highlighting the discrepancies between reality and this hopeful vision that Wilson had given the world. They also had the experience of being in France, where they had been treated quite differently. They didn't have the social practice of segregation or racial discrimination that really regulated daily life for so many African Americans. So living in this sort of freer environment really demonstrated to many African American soldiers that it didn't have to be this way in the United States. And then finally, groups like the NAACP, their membership exploded during the war. And so, this transitional moment that the First World War represents really sets the foundation for the modern Civil Rights movement.
Theo Mayer: Before we close, I'd like to talk just for a moment about the role of African American women in World War I. Now, they did play a large role in a number of ways, and we're going to be doing a whole segment on this in an upcoming episode. But some African American nurses actually did serve in France, didn't they?
Jennifer Keene: There were African American nurses who were brought in after the war was over, due to the influenza epidemic. This was because the flu was so overwhelming to Army medical services, and many black soldiers were falling ill with the flu. But this was an interesting dilemma. The nurses in general faced a lot of resistance in terms of being considered true professionals who had valuable services to give to the military, but for African American nurses, they had opposition not just from men, but also from white women, who felt that black nurses in this event brought the reputation of the whole nursing profession down, rather than elevating it the way that they wanted to.
Theo Mayer: Dr. Keene, thank you for coming in and enlightening us on a subject that needs a whole lot more exposure.
Jennifer Keene: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.
Theo Mayer: Dr. Jennifer Keene is the Department of History Chair at California's Chapman University. Learn more about her, her accomplishments and her work by following the links in the podcast notes.