Although initially pledging to keep the country out of the European conflict, on April 2, 1917, President Wilson stood before Congress and issued a declaration of war against Germany. "The world must be made safe for democracy," he stated, framing the war effort as a crusade to secure the rights of democracy and self-determination on a global scale.
These words resonated with many people, who viewed the war as an opportunity to bring about true democracy in the United States. They argued it would be insincere for the United States to fight for democracy in Europe while African Americans had limited rights. "If America truly understands the functions of democracy and justice, she must know that she must begin to promote democracy and justice at home first of all," Arthur Shaw of New York proclaimed.
The Baltimore Afro-American, the longest running African American family-owned newspaper in the United States, used Wilson's pronouncement to frame the war as a struggle for African American civil rights. "Let us have a real democracy for the United States and then we can advise a house cleaning over on the other side of the water," they asserted. For African Americans, the war became a crucial test of America's commitment to the ideal of democracy and the rights of citizenship for all people, regardless of race.
The United States government mobilized the entire nation for war, and African Americans were expected to do their part. The military instituted a draft in order to create an army capable of winning the war. The government demanded "100% Americanism" and used the June 1917 Espionage Act and the May 1918 Sedition Act to crack down on dissent. Large segments of the African American population, however, remained hesitant to support a cause they deemed hypocritical. A small but vocal number of African Americans explicitly opposed African American participation in the war. A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, editors of the radical socialist newspaper The Messenger, openly encouraged African Americans to resist military service and, as a result, Randolph and Owen were closely monitored by federal intelligence agents. Many other African Americans viewed the war apathetically and found ways to avoid military service. As one African American resident from Harlem quipped, "The Germans ain't done nothin' to me, and if they have, I forgive 'em."
Nevertheless, many African Americans saw the war as an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and their place as equal citizens in the nation. "Colored folks should be patriotic," the Richmond Planet insisted. "Do not let us be chargeable with being disloyal to the flag." Over one million African Americans responded to their draft calls, and roughly 370,000 black men were inducted into the army. Charles Brodnax, a farmer from Virginia recalled, "I felt that I belonged to the Government of my country and should answer to the call and obey the orders in defense of Democracy."
To learn more about World War I Virginian African American veterans, visit True Sons of Freedom.
Cloze Reading/Turn a Blind Eye: Have students partner up or work in groups with only one able to see the poster. This person is the describer and should describe it in as much detail as possible the poster to their group/partner. They should not interpret the poster, but only state the details they see. The listeners should take notes on what they “see” and form a hypothesis of the purpose of the poster and reasons for artistic decisions. Then, as a class, examine the poster and allow students to adjust their hypothesis.
Analyzing Propaganda: Examine poster with class and discuss the overall message of the poster (what it wants the public to do); any emotions the poster plays upon; the effect that the poster would likely have on people at the time. Students should describe how the overall message is conveyed by the symbols and images; words; arrangement of the images and words; and colors of the poster.
In Their Shoes: As an African American man, write a journal entry weighing the pros and cons of joining the military.
Up for Debate: Would African Americans serving in a segregated military further the cause for civil rights?