From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
The Civil War and Beyond: the Connection Between Reconstruction and the Great War
The following is a transcript from February 8th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 109, edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: February is Black History Month. As we begin telling the story of African Americans in World War I, it occurred to us that in order to put it into context, we really needed to go back an additional generation to what is known as the Reconstruction Era. Now, this is a period of time in American history that started right after the Civil War and lasted about 10 years to 1877; a time during which constitutional amendments about civil rights, a stronger federal government, and what was meant by the words "United States" was redefined. Now the reason this matters to World War I is that this is the period when the parents of those who fought in World War I grew up. 1877 is only 40 years before we declared war on Germany. If you were an African American man of about 25, of drafting age or volunteer age, there's a good chance that your parents were born during this tumultuous Reconstruction Era. With that as a time reference, let's go back to examine the changes that came at the end of the US Civil War.
Theo Mayer: Now we've traveled back to the end of the American Civil War. The confederacy collapses, slavery is abolished, and four million black slaves are freed. During the Reconstruction Era that follows the war, national unity is slowly restored, the federal government expands its power, and civil rights are guaranteed to freed black slaves through amendments to the constitution and federal laws.
There are three amendments to the US constitution in this period aimed at ending slavery and pulling the states together. First, the 13th Amendment is passed in the same year the Civil War ends, 1865. It officially abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Slide forward three years to 1868, and the 14th Amendment grants citizenship to former slaves and to all persons "subject to US jurisdiction." It also sets three new limits on states' powers. First, they cannot violate a citizen's privileges or immunities. Second, they cannot deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Third, the states have to guarantee that everybody gets equal protection under the law. Slide forward another two years to 1870 and you get the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the use of race, color, or previous condition of servitude in determining whether you can or cannot vote, unless you are a woman.
All of this is meant to create uniformity of freedoms for everybody, except women, especially stopping state laws designed to keep shackles on the civil rights and liberties of former slaves. This period of pulling it all together, admittedly with some resentment and a lot of resistance, is called the Reconstruction Period and goes on until 1877, 40 years and just one generation before America hits World War I. That means that grandparents and even parents of young African Americans who decided to fight or were drafted into World War I may very well have lived part of their lives as slaves.
That is a set up. Let's bring our perspective back into the present as we hear from one of the commission's special advisors, Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun. Ambassador Braun is a pretty amazing person and a multifaceted pioneer. Now, first off, in 1992, she was elected to serve as the first female African American United States Senator, also becoming the first woman elected to the Senate from the State of Illinois. After that, she served as ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. Here is special advisor to the commission, Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, followed by commission Executive Director Dan Dayton, both parts excerpted from a new video the commission produced called "A Soldier's Journey." To see the video, search "A Soldier's Journey" on Vimeo or YouTube.
Carol Braun: I got a box back of some family pictures, and in the bottom of the box was this picture. It was of my grandfather in a military uniform. I began to get interested and actually passionate about World War I and the history of what it meant, not just for me and my family but what it meant for the community as a whole. My grandfather's name was Thomas Davie. He was a sergeant in the American Expeditionary Forces. My grandfather went off to fight for an idea. He didn't fight for what he was experiencing in his life. He couldn't vote, he couldn't sit on the front of the bus, but he was prepared to go off and fight for democracy and the ideals that built this country and that he invested in. He was prepared to give his life. That, to me, is the definition of patriotism. I mean you don't get an any more profound definition of patriotism than somebody who will fight for an idea even in spite of the realities of their current circumstance. He and 300,000 other African Americans did just that.
Again, we talk about diversity being strength. Women came out of the home for the first time to be able to participate in the war. African Americans came out of the fields in many cases, Native Americans, at that point, who had been run off onto reservations, immigrant Americans. They all came together and participated as soldiers, as doughboys in World War I, and the rest of the world was very grateful. The African American soldiers came back from Europe at the end of the war in 1918. They brought back a different sensibility. There are many people who say that it was their intervention or their experiences that planted the seeds for the civil rights movement that blossomed 60 years later. They so believed in the ideals of democracy.
Dan Dayton: World War I was the war that changed the world. It changed everything about the interrelationship between countries. It helped to advance our technology. It helped to advance the rights of women and helped to advance the rights of African Americans. It helped bring America out of its shell for the first time. There is an importance to the American Dream. There is an importance to the defense of the democracy of the United States. That's just as important today as it was a hundred years ago, as it was 200-plus years ago. We're charged with trying to help Americans understand that, and to build the National Memorial when there is no World War I Memorial in the nation's capital. We're going to build one.
Theo Mayer: The story of African American participation in World War I is both heroic and tragic. As the timeline shows, it was a watershed moment that set the foundation for the civil rights movement. Men and women stepped up to establish the rights and respect for their community and their fellow black citizens and, tragically, often met with resistance, segregation, and blatant racism. But this moment set the rudder of freedom in an unerring direction for the civil rights movement on a long, often painful and difficult journey that's not yet ended, but clearly launched a hundred years ago in the War that Changed the world.