I have long been familiar with the role that World War I played in the struggle for India’s independence from Great Britain. Indian regiments sailed overseas and fought alongside their Canadian and Australian counterparts. (If you visit the memorial gateway at Ypres, you will see how many of them died in defense of the empire.) Indian nationalists loyally supported the British government during the war, fully expecting that British victory would end with Indian self rule on the dominion model. Instead of self-rule, India got repressive legislation that resulted in the Amritsar Massacre.
Earlier this year, I was stunned to learn that a similar toxic combination of high hopes and racist backlash resulted in violence across the United States. Here’s the short version:
When the United States enter the war in 1917, African-American civil rights leaders responded to Woodrow Wilson’s call for national unity against the German threat. W.E. B. Dubois summed up their position when he urged African-Americans “while the war lasts forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own while fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.
Almost 400,000 African American men who served in the war suffered from the same —— that they experienced at home. The four regiments of the all-black 93rd division who served in France, each assigned to a different French division, had the new experience of being treated as equals. The regiments served heroically at the front alongside the French, and were highly decorated for their gallantry in action.
When they came home in February 1919, members of the 369th Infantry, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, were greeted with a victory parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. But the heroic welcome was short-lived. Black soldiers came home to an atmosphere of increased racial tension fueled by competition for jobs and housing, white fears of black upward mobility and black discontent with the state of civil rights. “We return from fighting,” Dubois wrote in May 1919, “We return fighting.”
From April through November, anti-black race riots broke out in cities across America, including Washington D.C. (The count varies from 25 to 50, depending on the source.) The number of lynchings nationwide increased: ten of the victims were African-American veterans, some of whom were lynched while in uniform. Given little support from law enforcement officers at any level, African Americans took up arms to defend themselves against lynchings, bombings, and riots.
The most dramatic violence occurred in Chicago. The city’s lakefront beaches were segregated, by custom if not by law. On July 27, an African-American teenager named Eugene Williams floated his homemade wooden raft across the invisible line into a “white” area on the South Side; he was stoned and drowned. The Chicago police refused to take action against Williams’ attacker, even though witnesses identified the man who had thrown the stones. Young black men took matters into their own hands. Young white men retaliated. For a week,* mobs battled in the streets. The Illinois militia were called in to restore order. The violence left 38 people dead—23 of them black. More than 500 were injured, two-thirds of them black. Hundreds of homes and small businesses burned to the ground on the South Side, most of them black-owned.
Like the Amritsar Massacre, the Red Summer of 1919** marks a historical shift. One worth remembering.
Want to learn more?
Check out this website created by Chicago’s Newberry Library as part of a year-long program surrounding the Chicago riots in the Red Summer of 1919* Personally I’m tempted by the Bughouse Square section on July 27.
*Or maybe thirteen days.
**The name was coined by James Weldon Johnson, the field secretary of the NAACP.
I’m at the research stage on a couple of new potential projects. (Sorry to be vague, but they are both too fragile to share any details yet.) For one of them, I’m trying to get a handle on the experience of children during World War II in the United States.
One of the things I’m doing is looking more closely at the things we all think we know about life on the home front. I started with scrap drives, which led me unexpectedly to Little Orphan Annie.
Harold Gray, the creator of Little Orphan Annie, had always found the themes for his comic strips from the headlines. World War II was no different. Daddy Warbucks geared up for war production and joined an unidentifiable army as a 3-star general. Annie and her little dog fought on the home front, foiling Nazi submarine attacks, taking down spy rings, and looking for corruption in local rationing boards.*
Annie most important wartime action, and the one with real life consequences, was the formation of the Junior Commandos: a way for children to contribute to the war effort. “Colonel Annie” explained how the Junior Commandos worked. She had a ledger with the names of everyone in the town. People who gave scrap got a blue mark beside their names. People who hired Junior Commandos to do small jobs, allowing children to earn money to buy war stamps, got a red mark. And people who did not support the Junior Commandos? Colonel Annie’s response was scornful: “If they won’t even try to help when our country needs th’ help o’ everyone? Why that’s easy—for them we use a yellow mark!” (Little Orphan Annie was never a subtle comic strip.)
Children around the country organized Junior Commando chapters and set out to collect scrap materials for the war production effort. Thousands of children participated: by the fall of 1942, the Boston Herald Traveler reported almost 20,000 Junior Commandos were enrolled in the Boston area alone.
The Junior Commandos weren’t the only groups of children that collected scraps. The War Production organized a school-based Junior Army. (Some of those units chose to call themselves Junior Commandos.) Scout troops and churches also pitched in.
It’s not clear how much good scrap collection did in terms of war production. With the exception of kitchen grease, which could be processed into glycerin and used in explosives, the technology for reusing scrap was expensive and inefficient. But there is no doubt that scrap drives were good for moral. As Annie told some neighborhood girls who were giving her a hard time about not having time to play, “Loretta an’ I have something lots more important than playin’. We’re doin’ war work. It’s our war, just as much—or maybe more—than anybody else’s.”
If you have family anecdotes about kids collecting scrap in World War II or know where I can find out more about the Junior Commandos, please let me know.
*This last was not a piece of pure-hearted patriotism. Gray was involved in a flap with his local board over their refusal to allow him extra gasoline coupons. For some reason they did not find agree with his claim that drawing Little Orphan Annie was vital war work and that he needed to travel to collect material. Many readers were not amused by his perceived attack on government war policy and at least one paper refused to run the strip was a result.
Quick: Name one historical woman pilot other than Amelia Earhart without resorting to the internet. (1) Aviation history is a regular topic in our household and I could only come up with three:
- Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926), the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license (2)
- Jacqueline Cochran (May 11, 1906 – August 9, 1980), the director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in World War II (3)
- Cornelia Fort (February 5, 1919 – March 21, 1943), who was a flight instructor in Honolulu and an eyewitness to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
More accurately, I could only come up with three before I read Keith O’Brien’s excellent Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History.
At first O’Brien seems like an unlikely author for a work of women’s history. He is a journalist with a history of writing (beautifully) about sports. His previous book, Outside Shot, is a basketball epic—think Hoosiers for the 21st century. In fact, I would argue that O’Brien’s history as a literary sportswriter makes Fly Girls the book it is. He tells the story of women’s struggles to gain acceptance in the world of early aviation through the lens of airplane racing, which was a popular spectator sport in the years between the wars.
Like modern day NASCAR racing, airplane races were about skill, speed, and the possibility of seeing horrifying crashes. And like boys’ clubs throughout history, the organizers of airplane races were determined to keep women out of the game. O’Brien tells the story of five women who learned to fly against all discouragement, who set out to break distance and speed records, and who were determined to fly in the big-money races with men. He details their challenges, their failures, and their successes. I’m not going to give you any details, because O’Brien tells their stories with the tension of a thriller and I don’t want to spoil the ride.
For me, Fly Girls was a visceral read. I ground my teeth at the indignities they suffered. I wept more than once at the story of a woman’s death. (4) I occasionally swore. And at least once I gave a fist bump of triumph. (That’s as close to a spoiler as I’m going to get.)
For the record, their names are:
- Amelia Earhart
- Ruth Elder
- Florence Klingensmith
- Ruth Nichols
- Louise Thaden
As the most visible female pilots of their time, other women with dreams of flying watched their successes and failures with the same passion that thousands (millions?) are watching the US women’s soccer team play in the World Cup. In fact, if you’ll excuse me, the final game is about to start as I write this. I’m not much of a sports fan, but this one matters.
(1) Or any aviation history books that may reside on your shelves. (Though if you have more than one or two this question may not present a challenge.) Bonus points if you’re familiar The 99s.
(2) She had to go to France to do it, because none of the aviation schools she approached would accept her. Which meant she had to learn French in order to learn to fly. This is known as determination.
(3) Also the first woman to break the sound barrier. But I didn’t know that until I looked up her dates.
(4) For the record, I do not cry easily or often.