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Thursday, May 9, 2013

World War I Galvanizes African American Women

African American women did not sit at home absentmindedly twiddling their thumbs during World War I. As a matter of fact, Black women were galvanized into becoming social activists, community organizers, and laborers. They held rallies throughout the country to support " their" troops emotionally.  During the years of the WWI, women advocated for greater pay and better working conditions. They participated in the Anti-Lynching movement and the Suffrage Movement. Finally, African American women were able to expand their employment opportunities.

Lynching was a system primarily based in the South to instill fear in enslaved Blacks, and then Blacks after Emancipation. If a Black man was considered "uppity" or getting out of hand, he could be "lynched", which was a public hanging. It was a "must see" for evil and racist spectators, and many would brag about going to one as if it was an entertainment event. Children were brought to lynchings and individuals were reported "smiling and waving at the camera."  Trumped up charges, minor infractions, retribution, punishment, etc. were all used to spread fear and keep African Americans in place. On some occasions, even pregnant females were lynched. These atrocities continued for centuries. The role of the Negro Press was instrumental in shedding light on this disturbing practice. Black leaders and clergy men dedicated a significant portion of their lives in ending this inhumane practice.

Related to lynching were brutal attacks and assaults on African Americans. The turning point for the Civil Rights Movement was Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who was assaulted, eyes gouged out, and shot in the back of the head for reportedly flirting with a white married woman. His body was dumped into a river and his assailants were acquitted and released. Emitt Till was a young boy visiting relatives in Mississippi  from Chicago, IL. His body was returned to Chicago where newspaper photographs of his open casket funeral shocked and outraged the nation. Till's case was in 1958, and forced America to examine its disturbing history of racial violence. An entertainer made the callous mistake of insensitively referencing Emitt Till in a song lyric recently, which resulted in negative publicity and a major endorsement deal loss. (Source:

Blues singer Billie "Lady Day" Holiday's (1915-1959) famous song  about lynching is called "Strange Fruit".
Writers: Abel Meeropol and Laura Duncan

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This song was recorded by Holiday in 1939. "Strange Fruit" is believed to be the first anti-racism song and later inducted inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.   Source:                                                           

It is hard to believe that half of the United States population did not have the right to vote. Females were considered intellectually inferior, overly emotional, and not capable of making political decisions. Women were viewed as second class citizens and property. They were not granted the right to vote until August 26, 1920. The 19th Amendment of the US Constitution allowed women the right to vote. It was a battle that took over 100 years, since the first Women's Right's Convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848.* (The 15th Amendment supposedly guaranteed the right for Black men to vote; but illegal, flagrant, violations led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Black women willingly participated in the Suffrage Movement.

Employment Opportunities
From the book, "Women, War, and Work: The Impact of Women Workers in the United States, by Maurine Weiner Greenwald, Interview by Helen Ross, 1918, Sante Fe Railroad:

What occupation is open to us where we can make really good wages? We are employed as clerks, we cannot see any use in working our parents to death to get educated. Of course we should like easier work than this if it were opened to us, but this pays well and is no harder than other work open to us with three dollars a day, we can buy bonds, we can dress decently and not be tempted to find our living on the streets. (From historymatters.gmued/d/5331)

Some of the positions that African American women became employed in as a result of WWI included laborers, and railroad workers. This consisted of cleaning railroad cars, wiping engines, and tending railroad beds.These  positions were a far cry from standard domestic work and enabled women to expand their working possibilities. Eighty Percent of African American Women were employed as domestics in the United States. After 1915, they were now receiving training to become clerical workers.**  Women advocated for better wages, and seamstresses went on strike.


Also, in 1917, the co-founder of the Red Cross urged Black nurses to join the American Red Cross. They were not accepted until two months before the war ended in November 1918. These women served by making bandages and working in hospitals. The women also wrote letters home for illiterate soldiers, read mail sent to them, and worked in troop centers. (Source:

My dad, a Montford Point Marine who served with the 51st Battalion, had a negative experience with white Red Cross workers which I will describe in the future. In fact, in reading newspaper articles from other members of Montford Point, they cited the same incidents, a memory that lasted for most of their lifetimes. I think of all of the injustices these World War II soldiers suffered, this ranks among the top five.

Anti Lynching Advocate/Journalist/Educator Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) worked for the National Equal Rights Organization and requested President Woodrow Wilson to put an end to discrimination in hiring jobs for the US government. Ida B. Wells established an African American kindergarten. She was a newspaper editor and journalist. Wells was a  fearless crusader against inequality despite threats against her life.


Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was inspired by soldiers returning from World War I into becoming a pilot. In 1918 this was primarily a domain for privileged, wealthy white men. Her brother's disparaging remarks motivated Coleman into pursuing a pilot's license. Determined, Bessie Coleman took her savings and enrolled in flight school in France, since she was repeatedly denied admittance into flight school in the United States due to her race. Coleman thrilled thousands of spectators over the years with her exciting air shows and received acclaim for her bold accomplishments. The first Black female aviator died tragically in an air show accident in Jacksonville, Florida. Coleman's favorite role model, Ida B.Wells, presided over her funeral. Both of theses trailblazers were honored many decades later with United States Postal stamps. (www.pbsorg/wgbh/amexflygirls/peopleevents/paradeamex02.html)


The Great War, then, was certainly an impetus for African American to join the work force, to fight for equal rights, to organize and flex their political, social and economic muscles. Women such as Journalist/Equal Rights Advocate Ida B. Wells, and organizations such as the Red Cross, The YWCA and various auxiliary groups broke barriers for the rights of all. Their collective voices led to sweeping reforms that changed policy and created legislation. And in the case of aviatrix Bessie Coleman, World War I introduced endless possibilities....

** source: exhibitions,
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