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The Chamber Salutes Black History Month

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The Maywood Chamber of Commerce is pleased to join with the community in remembering the service and sacrifice of all Americans who served with honor and valor in World War I, from the Declaration of War on April 6, 1917, through to the end of occupation, in 1919.




February 2019


Last February, I had the pleasure of introducing members of the Maywood Chamber of Commerce to a book titled, The Victory Monument: The Beacon of Chicago’s Bronzville, which was written by the late Dempsey J. Travis, a historian and one of Chicago’s most distinguished Black businessmen.  This year, my book selection is Bitter Victory, A History of Black Soldiers in World War I, by Florette Henri, with Richard Stillman as military consultant. 


The book was published in 1970, by Zenith Books, a division of Doubleday and Company, of Garden City, New York.  Zenith Books specialized in publishing histories of African Americans for young readers.  For this, and many more reasons, I am pleased to provide an overview of Bitter Victory, which I regard as a gem. 


The author of Bitter Victory, Florette Henri, is a skillful writer; and I appreciate her ability to synthesize large amounts of information into a coherent and compelling account of Black America during World War I.  Throughout the book, Henri contextualizes brutal moments which gives deeper meaning to the endurance and achievements of America's Black fighters in World War I.


Henri identifies three social forces that shaped the world during the years leading up to The Great War, as it was known prior to adoption of the term World War I. She refers to these forces as “isms.”  They are industrialism, colonialism and nationalism.   Beginning with industrialism, Henri informs the reader that technology helped fuel appetites for power and material goods.  She then turns to colonialism, which was a social construct that enabled powerful nations to expropriate valuable resources from weaker nations. 


Henri identifies the third "ism," nationalism, as the driving-force behind colonialism.  Nationalism, as we see today, tends to place devotion to country, as defined by its leaders, above all else.  Stroking the flames of nationalism during the period leading up to World War I were sovereigns and monarchs who believed the world was theirs for the taking.  Henri explains that the three “ism” helped cement a hierarchical world based on color, race and privilege.  At the top of the pecking order were privileged Whites and at the bottom were destitute Blacks.  Sustaining this social order was adherence to the notion of racial superiority. 


After defining the social forces shaped the world during the early decades of the 20th Century, Henri shows how Black Americans were directly affected by the "isms." She also reveals how the “isms” influenced American politics.  Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was Commander-In-Chief from March 4, 1913 to March 4, 1921.  His administration advanced numerous policies that disenfranchised American Blacks.  Ironically, many of these policies were implemented during the war years, when America needed its Blacks citizens to help "make the world safe for democracy," as Wilson was famous for saying.


Florette Henri does an outstanding job of summarizing the state of America in 1917, the year President Wilson declared war on the German Empire.  She includes information about Black participation in our nation’s military; and explains that for many Blacks, military jobs were prized positions.  Military service provided Black Americans with opportunities to demonstrate their allegiance, while gaining economic stability in an age of great uncertainty.


The years leading up to and through the 1910s were tumultuous across America and elsewhere.  These years were particularly trying for America's Black citizens.  In the South, Blacks fell victim to an explosive resurgence of pro-Confederate sentiment.  In Northern states, Black faced intense competition for jobs and housing from waves of European immigrants.  Rampant racism resulted in limited job opportunities for Blacks across the nation, particularly for those lacking education.  When Blacks were offered jobs, the positions were often marginal, dangerous, or demeaning.  At the time, most unions existed to advance and protect the interests of White workers. Blacks were frequently employed as strike-breakers, which infuriated many Whites workers, particularly European immigrants attempting to gain secure footings in American society.  


By 1917, the nation had grown accustomed to job-related racial violence; but many were still shocked to learn that as many as two hundred unarmed Blacks were killed by Whites, over jobs and other grievances in East St. Louis, during the spring and summer of 1917. 


East St. Louis is located in southern Illinois, along the banks of the Mississippi, across from St. Louis.  Such incidents, as the East St. Louis Massacre, are referenced throughout Bitter Victory; and serve to underscore the challenges Black Americans faced long before they stepped foot on the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe. 


When Congress authorized President Wilson to pursue war, many Blacks saw the declaration as an opportunity to show their love of country and to right the wrongs of discrimination.  Florette Henri notes that during a Flag Day gathering held a few months after war was declared, President Wilson gave an address that captivated Black Americans.  He stated, “This is a Peoples’ War for freedom and justice and self-government amongst all the nations of the world.” As Henri notes, many African Americans took the president’s declaration to heart, and made his words their own.


At the outset of America's participation in the war, the Regular Army had four Black regiments.  In addition, there were eight all-Black state National Guard units.  Many African Americans held these units in high-regard.  Florette Henri notes the pride that Blacks felt when the First Separate Battalion of the District of Columbia National Guard (NG) was selected to protect vital assets in the nation’s capitol against possible attack by enemy agents.  At that time, the Washington, DC NG unit was comprised of roughly 1,000 Black men, including officers. 


While most Black Americans were overtly patriotic, the nation at large, and the military in particular, were less than welcoming.  Henri highlights this point by drawing attention to the striking contrast between the American response to its Black patriots, and those of the French and British, who welcomed their Black colonialists.


In America, White men selected for service were generally unwilling to be placed on equal-footing with Blacks.  This posed a problem for military leaders, as Henri states.  She writes, “Military men feared outbreaks of violence between black and white soldiers in the camps.”  She references the populations of two U.S. Army Cantonments (training camps) to offer evidence of practices aimed at keeping Black soldiers in the minority.  Henri writes, “The Army was careful to “keep a safe ratio of colored to whites.” At Camp Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina, the “safe ratio” was one black regiment of the Ninety-third Division, or about 2,500 black men, to 25,000 white soldiers of the Eighty-first Division.  At Camp Lee, Virginia, one of the worst camps for discrimination and Jim Crow, the ratio was 7,000 blacks to 50,000 whites.”


According to Henri, Black officers had a particularly tough time of it.  This was evident when the authority of Black officers was challenged or ignored by White recruits.  Making matters worse, White officers were known to humiliate Black officers in front of their men.  Such incidents served to undermine the authority of Black officers, and lessen their effectiveness in transforming Black civilians into skilled and disciplined fighters.


America's Black servicemen also encountered racial troubles in many of the towns that supported the military camps.  In August of 1917, Black soldiers in Houston were embroiled in a deadly riot following attempts by local police to enforce Jim Crow laws.  After order was restored, many of the participating Black soldiers were arrested, tried and executed, or given life sentences for their part in the melee. 


Such brutal and one-sided responses on the part of the military did not align with what Black America expected from a government that sought and needed its help.  As Henri notes, the swift and extreme responses of the military to the unrest in Houston alarmed Black leaders; and their concerns, in turn, worried Wilson and his administration.  Henri concludes, “They feared that a resentful black population might be influenced by German propaganda against the United States.” 


Florette Henri's account of the Houston Riot underscores the important role Black America played in the complex web of global affairs in the 1910s.   She succeeds in providing a comprehensive account of numerous difficulties Black soldiers encountered while preparing to meet German adversaries.  It is remarkable that these soldiers were able to maintain faith - faith in themselves, their country, and their ability to help make the World, and America, safe for democracy - while enduring such enormous hardships and opposition from their fellow countrymen.  It is obvious the fight of the Black American soldier began long before they ever boarded ships to go fight and die in a foreign land. 


To her credit, Florette Henri's survey of the times includes consideration of how Black women were affected by the war effort.  Seldom do we hear of accounts of Black women's heroic efforts to keep the home fires burning while their men served in the military.  It is clearly a subject worthy of further study.


After describing numerous race-based battles at home, Florette Henri takes the reader ‘Over There,’ to the battlefields of France where a fierce and determined enemy was engaged in a daring offensive against Allied Forces.  The men of New York's 369th Regiment, one of the Army's Black units, were assigned to serve under the French.  More than any other American unit, the men of the 369th distinguished themselves fighting alongside French soldiers, in some of the most difficult battles of the war.  The extraordinary fighting spirit exhibited by the men of the 369th caused the Germans to call them “Hell-fighters.”


Today, the men of the 369th are celebrated for their valor, but at the time, their achievements earned little praise from their American commanders.  Only the French, and Black advocates at home, valued the service and sacrifice of the 369th Regiment. 


Once the Armistice was signed, an act that brought war to an end on November 11, 1918, America’s military leaders had little use for Black servicemen.   Henri writes, “Among the very first to go back to America were the black soldiers.  As we have seen, there was no rest areas for them.  White officers were given leaves in the French towns when the war ended, but the Army did not want black soldiers to mingle with the French people.  The only thing to do with the black troops was to send them home, the Army thought.”


Upon their return home, Black servicemen faced hardships that embittered many.  In the summer of 1919, racial tensions in cities across America erupted in violence, earning the season the epithet, “The Red Summer.”  Chicago was one of the cities that experienced deadly conflict.  Underlying the violence was a set of opposing wills. Whites wanted Blacks to return to “their place” in society, prior to the war; and Blacks demanded a fair share of the rewards of Democracy and victory.


The compelling stories contained in Bitter Victory are enhanced by artful illustrations and thirteen stunning photographs depicting mostly Black servicemen engaged in various activities, such as training at camps, posing for photographs in post-war Europe, and marching in New York’s welcome-home parade.   The photographs speak to an incredible journey that transformed many poor and disadvantaged men into brave and effective warriors.  While the images are precious, they are also heartbreaking.  The bitterness referenced in the book's title hits home when one reads the caption beneath the thirteenth photograph, which shows a tide of Black soldiers marching in New York’s welcome home parade.  The caption reads, “Ten black men in uniform were hanged, beaten, or shot to death within a year after a million New Yorkers welcomed home the 369th Regiment.” 


Most readers of conscience will finish Bitter Victory with a mix of emotions.  On the one hand, there is an overwhelming sense of shame for how America treated its war heroes.  On the other hand, there is tremendous pride in knowing that America's Black soldiers triumphed over frightful enemies, both at home and in Europe.  From my own perspective, these men define one of America’s greatest generations.


Although the victory achieved in World War I was made bitter by America's obsession with race, I choose to focus on the fighting spirit, the love of country and the accomplishments of those Blacks who chose to serve their country in World War I.  The men of the 369th Regiment, along with other Black military units that served during the war, deserve to be remembered and celebrated.  Their strength, durability, determination and courage helped make America great.  These men are worthy of our appreciation and respect - not only in February, Black History Month - but every month in which the Good Lord graces our nation with life and liberty.


May God continue to bless the United States of America, and all those who fought and died for our liberty and social justice. 



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