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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Uncle Sam, Blacks and the Great War

 My grandfathers did not serve in World War I. They did not make the age requirement. On May 18, 1917, the United States Congress passed the Selective Service Act. The act required males from the ages of 21 through 30 to register for the draft. When the United States declared war on Germany, the War Department knew that the paltry number of 126,000 Army men would not be enough to defeat the Central Powers.*

Meanwhile, Negroes wanted to prove that they were loyal and patriotic.  They felt that this would improve their status as second class citizens. So they signed up in droves, eager to serve their country. The eagerness to sign up was very similar to the positive sentiment demonstrated during World War II.

Uncle Sam represents the US Government.

Some Black men showed apathy and outright refusal to fight in World War I. " The Germans ain't done nothin' to me and if they have, I forgive 'em." (Source: This comment by a Harlem resident, eerily reminds me of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali's remark about the Vietcong, some five decades later when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. (See earlier post, "Dad Decides To Become A Marine").  A small fraction of Black men thought it was wrong to sign up for the war overseas. The US Government passed the June 1917 Espionage Act and the May 1918 Sedition Act "to crack down on dissent".  Negro leaders were under surveillance because of their anti-war rhetoric.

A. Phillip Randolph
photo courtesy of

A magazine called The Messenger was founded by A.Phillip Randall (1889-1979) and Chandler Owen in 1912. It called for "more positions in the war industry and the armed forces for Blacks". A Phillip Randall worked tirelesslesly to organize Black workers and fight discrimination throughout his lifetime. He established the first Black labor union and challenged both President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and President Harry S. Truman to end discrimination in the federal government and the armed forces. Randolph would ultimately be responsible for President Truman signing Executive Order 9981, which prohibited segregation in the armed forces. But this historical feat was accomplished much later, in the year 1948. (Source:

I learned today that Black men were required to tear one corner of their registration cards so they could easily be identified and inducted separately. In the South, draft boards were doing all they could to bring Negros into service. They were less likely to be exempt from service. Of course, by serving I am referring to positions such as stevedores, cooks, drivers, and support positions. It was decided that "they were better suited in manual positions". (info derived from

 The torn right corner  immediately identified Blacks.

 In addition to the intense enlistment of Black soldiers, I discovered that Southern postal workers deliberately withheld the registration cards of eligible Negros men. Why? This practice was done to have them arrested and jailed as draft dodgers. These men owned their own farms and had families. Sadly, it was a deplorable way for those in power to break up the family unit, weaken the Negro man, and financially profit from taking their farms. The farms were a source of pride in the South, particularly since Negroes were descendants of sharecroppers and enslaved Africans.

This deliberate scheme reminds me of how people who wish to harm others convene and plot for the demise of another group for financial gain. One example is the often touted "School to Prison Pipeline for Black Boys". It is also refered to as the Prison Industrial Complex. Social rights activist icon Angela Davis eloquently describes mass incarceration in the video below:

                                                The image of Uncle Sam is shown in this video.

 Human trafficking is another example of how a group of people will exploit another set of individuals. Young woman are lured to this country with the promise of a job, and a better standard of life. These women use their life savings to go to America, the land of opportunity. But unbeknownst to the women, once they arrive their passports are taken from them along with their money and the women are forced to work as slaves. Another scenario is when females are given housing or a meal, and then coerced to participate in a lurid, unsafe lifestyle.

 I would be remiss to not discuss the role of Black Women in the Great War effort and several exceptional African American World War I combat divisions. These contributions will be the subject of my next post. Again, all branches EXCEPT the Marines Corps accepted African Americans. The Marines did not accept African Americans until World War II.

WWI Soldiers

* Notes: military
stevedore: one who is employed in the unloading of ships.

Uncle Sam:  nickname for the US Government. His origins were based on an actual person by the name of Samuel Wilson, whose firm had a contract to provide meat for soldiers during the War of 1812. The artist who created the portrait was named James Montgomery Flagg.(

Angela Davis: Social rights advocate, professor, civil rights activist, former member of the Communist Party and Black Panthers. Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944. She has authored many books, and
lectures throughout the world.

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