How World War I Inspired Black Americans to Fight for Dignity at Home

Published: 1 June 2023

By Victor Luckerson
via the Literary Hub web site

Tulsa riots

Victor Luckerson on the Lead-Up to the Tulsa Race Massacre

The Tulsa Race Massacre decimated the neighborhood of Greenwood over the course of two days—May 31 and June 1, 1921—but such explosive carnage never stems from a single fuse. Racial turmoil in Tulsa and across the United States had been building for years before the attack.

Nineteen-nineteen should have been a year of celebration as World War I came to an end. But for black soldiers, the long shadow of violence was impossible to escape. In the months after the armistice, black units were forced to bury tens of thousands of corpses in the French countryside while white battalions enjoyed lavish victory parades. When black soldiers did make it home, many units were celebrated only grudgingly by the nation they had defended. In Tulsa, homecoming events for returning soldiers were segregated, and black veterans organized their own victory celebrations.

The mounting tension went far beyond rituals. After risking their lives and losing their innocence, black soldiers returning home bore no more patience for Jim Crow discrimination and violent white coercion. But standing up for themselves was dangerous. If a black veteran brushed a white man on the sidewalk and refused to apologize, white people might assault him in his military uniform.

Daniel Mack suffered such a fate after a white man stumbled into him on a sidewalk in Sylvester, Georgia. A scuffle ensued, but only Mack was arrested. Nine days later four white men removed him from his jail cell, beat him with clubs and ax handles, and left him for dead outside of town. Mack survived and fled the area.

The war marked a sea change in how black men viewed their own citizenship.

Such actions were widely publicized in newspapers like the Chicago Defender, angering black people nationwide and laying the groundwork for a new, more militant breed of activism. White mobs had attacked black communities before World War I—in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, Atlanta, Georgia, in 1906, and Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. But the war marked a sea change in how black men viewed their own citizenship.

They sincerely desired to apply the heroism they had mustered on the western front to protect their own people. And even among those who had not been off to war, calls for armed resistance against white incursions became common among black writers and activists. “For three centuries we have suffered and cowered,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in September 1919. “Today we raise the terrible weapon of Self-Defense.”

Over the course of 1919, riots in more than thirty U.S. cities, from New York City to Bisbee, Arizona, seized the country. In Chicago, the stoning of a black teenager sparked a week of mob violence between the races. In Washington, D.C., after a black man suspected of assaulting a white woman was released for lack of evidence, white instigators began beating black passersby on sidewalks and hauling them from streetcars. Attacks stretched from black neighborhoods to the shadow of the White House.

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