Vanguards of the New Negro: African American veterans and post-World War I racial militancy.

Author:Williams, Chad L.
Position:Essay
 
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On 28 July 1919 African American war veteran Harry Haywood, only three months removed from service in the United States Army, found himself in the midst of a maelstrom of violence and destruction on par with what he had experienced on the battlefields of France. The previous day, simmering tensions between black and white residents of Chicago reached a boiling point following the stoning and subsequent drowning of young Eugene Williams who had dared to challenge the color-line at Lake Michigan's 29th Street beach. As he returned to the city following his latest run as a waiter on the Michigan Central Railroad, Haywood, formerly a soldier in the highly decorated 8th Illinois National Guard (370th Infantry Regiment), learned of the riot and feared the worst. A white coworker validated his anxiety, cautioning him against entering the southside of the city because, "There's a big race riot going on out there, and already this morning, a couple of colored soldiers were killed coming in unsuspectingly." While most likely rumor, the warning punctuated Haywood's disillusionment with the facade of American democracy stemming from his battles with the systemic racism of the U.S. Army and deepened his resolve to actively resist the brewing assault on Chicago's black community. After briefly reuniting with his family, Haywood immediately went to the 8th Illinois Armory and met with fellow veterans of the regiment to prepare a military style defense of their neighborhood from Irish rioters. Stocked with a cache of 1903 Springfield rifles and a browning sub-machine gun procured from the armory, Haywood and his comrades established positions in an apartment overlooking 51st Street, and stood ready to utilize their military training in anticipation of an impending evening attack. Haywood recalled similar actions taken throughout the South's Black Belt by other groups of African American veterans. (1)

Although no ambush occurred, the Chicago race riot indelibly transformed Haywood's racial and political consciousness. As he wrote in his autobiography, "the war and the riots of the 'Red Summer' of 1919 left me bitter and frustrated. I felt that I could never again adjust to the situation of Black inequality." The warlike nature of American race relations in the aftermath of World War I prompted many black veterans to question the meaning of their service and seek new strategies for achieving racial justice. After a period of intellectual self-discovery, Haywood joined the radical African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), a secret paramilitary organization founded by Cyril Briggs, editor of The Crusader, and committed to the defense of black people, the liberation of Africa, and the destruction of global capitalism. Upon its dissolution, he became a member of the Communist Party and emerged as one of its most influential black leaders. Racially enlightened and deeply politicized as a result of their experiences, African American veterans like Haywood represented and embodied the New Negro of the post-World War I era. (2)

This essay examines how the activism and racial militancy of black veterans fundamentally shaped the historical development and ideological diversity of the New Negro movement. The New Negro movement, rooted in the political consciousness and collective racial identity of black people in communities throughout the United States and the African Diaspora more broadly, was a product of the domestic and global upheavals of World War I and its aftermath. While the etymology of the term dates to the post-Reconstruction era, when a new generation of African Americans sought to distance themselves from slavery and its legacy, the vast social, political, and demographic transformations brought about by the global conflict made the New Negro of the war and postwar periods substantively distinct from previous historical epochs. Scholars have examined the various factors that gave rise to the New Negro, which included black migration, international revolutionary movements, most notably in Russia and Ireland, the growth of a radical black press, the emergence of a host of new racially militant political organizations, and most significantly a spirit of defiance stemming from the disillusioning experience of black support for and military participation in the war. Combined, these factors inspired an ideologically diverse political and cultural movement characterized by racial self-organization, international and diasporic consciousness, social identification with the black masses, and a commitment to self-defense against white racial violence. Emerging from the war, the New Negro rejected the conservatism, parochialism, and political accommodationism of the "Old Negro," a signifier of individual leaders and methods of civil rights protest deemed outdated in the context of the postwar period. While in part generational, the New Negro was the product of a particular historical moment and its constituent social, political, and economic forces. (3)

Little systematic attention has been paid to the central role of black World War I veterans in the history of the New Negro movement. The black veteran, emerging from the crucible of war with renewed self-determination to enact systemic change, symbolized the development of a masculinist spirit of racial militancy that characterized the New Negro. To borrow one formulation of the New Negro, African American veterans embodied a "reconstructed" Negro, radicalized at the levels of racial, gender, and political consciousness by the combination of the war and the ferocity of white supremacy. Moreover, as Michelle Stephens and Marlon Ross have recently noted, black male intellectuals constructed the New Negro to convey a modern, radical, and internationalist image of black masculine subjectivity, an image black veterans uniquely epitomized. This symbolic black veteran served an important purpose for various African American social leaders and political commentators, who discursively employed former soldiers to galvanize a broader commitment to citizenship rights and resistance to racism following the war, as seen in W. E. B. Du Bois's May 1919 Crisis editorial, "Returning Soldiers," in which he famously proclaimed, "We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting." In the trope of the New Negro male, the returning black soldier occupied the central position. (4)

The New Negro as African American veteran, however, constituted more than just a metaphor and rhetorical figure. Black veterans became self-conscious historical actors following the war. Some 380,000 black men fought and labored in France and the United States for the cause of global democracy, as propagandized by President Woodrow Wilson. While fiercely proud of their service, many black soldiers returned home following the war deeply disillusioned with Americans' professed democratic principles as a result of the soldiers' encounters with racial discrimination in the U.S. Army. These black veterans developed a heightened racial, political, gender, and diasporic consciousness, which translated into a commitment to challenge the strictures of racial inequality during the postwar period. The relationship between African American veterans and postwar racial militancy forms part of a longer historical tradition linking black participation in the military and collective opposition to U.S. racism. Black veterans of the Union Army assumed active leadership roles in national and local Reconstruction politics and social movements such as the Black Exodus of 1879. Similarly, following World War II African American veterans such as Robert Williams, Amzie Moore, and Medgar Evers emerged as prominent grassroots leaders in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Historians of the World War I era have yet to fully trace the activism of returned African American servicemen and thus far the scholarship has been limited to their military experience, with scant attention given to the cultural impact of black veterans in shaping postwar racial and gender consciousness. Moreover, most studies of the postwar period only allude to disillusioned black veterans as figurative embodiments of this new racial consciousness, often at the expense of an examination of the actual experiences of former servicemen. (5)

The choice of African American veterans to forsake service in the name of the United States and instead employ themselves on the behalf of "the race" constitutes a key dimension of the New Negro movement. While obviously not every African American serviceman returned from war a politically transformed racial militant, the postwar experiences of a significant number of veterans reflects the multidimensional nature of the New Negro movement, its ideological diversity, and the need to center former soldiers in this history. Disillusioned black veterans expressed their frustrations in multiple ways, from correspondence with newspapers and magazines, migration to northern cities, to actual physical resistance to white racist aggression, acts that inspired other African Americans and informed the tenor of the New Negro movement. Like their counterparts following the Civil War and World War II, many black veterans of the First World War also confronted white supremacy and reconstituted their political and gendered sense of self by serving as foot-soldiers and leaders in a diverse spectrum of social and political groups ranging from the NAACP to the Communist Party, depending on their own ideological orientation and goals for social reform. (6)

In this essay I specifically focus on the participation of African American veterans on the staff of The Messenger, the socialist magazine edited by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen; the League for Democracy (LFD), a group created by and specifically for African American veterans; and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded and led by the indomitable Marcus Garvey. While...

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