AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)
AFAM 162 - Lecture 8 - Migration and Urbanization (continued)
Chapter 1. W.E.B. Du Bois Editorial: “Close Ranks” [00:00:00]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: So you remember that I began the last lecture playing a poem by Sterling Brown called Old Lem, documenting the kinds of local social trauma and challenges that African Americans had to face in a sharecropping South. At least, that’s sort of the context that Old Lem evokes for me. And I talked about the–the rise of the NAACP and the Great Migration, the forces conspiring it, and also closed–and then closed with some vignettes from The Birth of a Nation to give you a sense of–sort of a tactile sense of a mentality in the nineteen-teens that reflects sort of the racial passions of the age, maybe to put a poetic turn on it. Today’s lecture’s really going to focus chiefly at the–the very in–between 1918 and 1920 or so, essentially, kind of bringing together all these different strands of social, political, economic tension and watching how they present themselves to a national, international audience.
I’m going to start here in 1918, move back a bit through 1917, go into 1919, just so you sort of follow the trajectory of the lecture. Also my apologies, I’m battling a head cold and I’m hoping that I can get through all this without being too congested. Anyway, this–I’m gonna title this lecture, I call it “World War I and the Red Summer.” In 1918, W. E. B. Du Bois, the Director of Research for the NAACP and the editor of the NAACP’s journal, Crisis, you know, the great leader of the American Negro Academy, the author of Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois writes an editorial. The editorial is called “Close Ranks.” Now in writing for the NAACP, it’s supposed to be a non-partisan organization, although it had a progressive political agenda when it comes to racial matters. But Du Bois, over the course of his three decades or so of continuous affiliation with the NAACP, frequently ruffled the feathers of NAACP leaders for his independence and–and essentially his shifting political ideologies being–being articulated in Crisis¸ through these editorials. “Closed Ranks” is one of the more famous early ones. This is an excerpt from it. So he’s talking about World War I. The U.S. is not yet involved. But he’s saying,
This is Du Bois’s basic call to black Americans to invest their faith in the promise of American democracy. The thinking was, by demonstrating the epitome of patriotic–the patriotic act, risking your life for your country, African Americans would–would–this demonstration would certainly translate into civil rights injustice at home once the war ended. Risk your life for the sake of the country, and the country will respect it and honor that sacrifice. Many black leaders were angry with Du Bois, and this is why I sort of preface this commentary on the editorial, that this should not be seen as the opinion of the NAACP necessarily, but Du Bois’s opinion. Many black leaders were upset with Du Bois because they didn’t think that he was acting in the best wishes or the best–in the best spirit of the race. And while they didn’t think he was quite acting like Booker T. Washington, who has just passed away about three years at this point, they were astonished that he could find it reasonable to ask blacks–to ask blacks to forget their special grievances.
We’ve already gone over these special grievances, of course, listed over the course of the last few weeks, a litany of problems generally associated with black life in the South, still largely a southern population. Those grievances hadn’t changed. What I want to do today in laying out this narrative is talk about these grievances as they were located in other places, the Midwest to a certain extent, but also more generally the North. I mean this is the moment of the migration. This builds upon that issue of, you know, what is it that blacks found when they landed in these new–new areas and new cities? Now as I made clear, I hope, in the last lecture, black migration was due to a range of factors, but jobs were one of the most important of these factors. You know, there’s the political intransigence of the South, of course, the terror and lynch law, but jobs were really one of the animating–core animating features.
Chapter 2. East St. Louis in 1917 [00:06:43]
Blacks migrating to the North or to the cities in search of work often burdened social services–social service agencies, who were trying to help out the needy. Blacks’ arrival in Northern, Midwestern cities placed extra pressures on housing, and blacks’ presence increasingly exacerbated labor tensions. It’s not surprising. You think back to the New York City draft riots with which I began this class. Blacks’ presence on the laboring scene created anxiety among those who were already working. In all of these regards, in overburdened social service agencies helping out the poor and the needy, housing issues, labor issues, in all of these regards, you can see events in East St. Louis forming into a powder keg.
July 2nd in 1917, East St. Louis: labor agents have recruited successfully thousands of blacks to work in the East St. Louis’s aluminum factories, and they were hired, as I mentioned on Monday, in this case, blacks were hired to replace striking white workers. These were scab workers. The striking workers were furious, of course. The bosses knew they had a great card to play, the race card in this case, and they used race to divide the workers. Blacks weren’t allowed in the unions, so this didn’t help matters out at all, and union organizers raised the cry of, I quote here, “Nigger scab” as blacks were going into the aluminum factories. As blacks were going in, these scab workers going into the–the factories, fights break out and quickly turn from a local, you know, fistfight or so to just open violence, going throughout much of East St. Louis. The police force, largely white, they’re not surprised at any of this happening, but decide to look the other way, as whites begin to assault blacks by clubbing them, hitting them, stabbing them.
When the dust settles down, we know that nine whites and at least forty blacks died in the riots in East St. Louis. And I say at least forty blacks. If you look at eyewitness accounts, you start seeing wide discrepancies of numbers. And really, what’s unknown is how many blacks died. I mean, I’m sure it could be more whites as well, but particularly blacks in this case, since there are eyewitness accounts of their bodies being thrown into ditches and never recovered, being thrown into the Mississippi River and never recovered. So we don’t know how many people died in the riots, really. We do know that thousands of black families were left homeless because of these St. Louis riots. And we also know that the massacre did not go unnoticed.
Some three weeks after the riots, we’re talking late July at this point, the NAACP organized a silent march down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Being led by muffled drums, ten thousand men, women, and children marched from Harlem to the heart of Manhattan in dead silence, simply carrying banners like, and I quote here, “Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?” or, “Mother, do lynchers go to heaven?” There’s a couple of images here from the silent march, again led by drummers, not a single sound, just a simple beat. And this is what I’ll just call a Men’s Auxiliary. Just the men were marching separately, carrying banners about anti–you know, protesting racial violence. Dressed in their respectable best. And in the same march, sort of the Women’s Auxiliary, women and children marching together, you know, as far as the eye can see, looking up Fifth Avenue, marching down. The silent protest, cause no one was going to hear their cries out loud, it seemed.
Chapter 3. Chicago in 1919 [00:11:44]
Now East St. Louis, as it turned out, would prove to be just the start of things. Two years later, 1919, the country would go through what has been called the Red Summer. Now the name didn’t come from the reference to communism, in this case, but rather was drawn from the amount of blood that was shed. Violence breaks out in twenty-five cities in a six month period in 1919. Some of the violence happens in the South. Some of these riots happen in the South, but the majority of the violence happens in the Midwest and North. And the worst riots in your reading this week, the sort of classic book on the occasion–the worst riots happened in Chicago in 1919, in July of 1919. You have in Chicago a five-day battle between whites and blacks, ethnic enclaves of whites fighting against blacks.
Now Chicago, as you know from reading the book, is a little bit different from St. Louis–East St. Louis in this regard, in that the battle in Chicago is not really over labor tensions, per se. Certainly there are tensions in the factories, but not–not like East St. Louis. The riots aren’t started out of scab workers trying to break a union, or being used to break a union. In Chicago, the largely–the riots largely are sparked by housing tensions. Now the spark comes out of the ugly–an ugly racial incident. A young black boy goes to Lake Michigan to enjoy a break from the heat of the summer. He goes to the segregated beach and trudges out into the water. Now if you know Lake Michigan, it looks like an ocean when you’re at the–at the shore. He goes out into the water and strays over some unmarked line. I can’t really say it was imaginary. People knew that it was there, I suppose. He strays over some unmarked line separating the races in the water. A group of white boys start throwing stones at him from the shore. He drowns in the assault.
News about the murder starts sweeping across Chicago, and street gangs, made up of white ethnics, start roving about with the stated purpose of defending their turf. So you already know the tension’s there, and this might be a spark they’re recognizing of something really horrible happening, based on the violence happening in other cities. So these street gangs start to–they’re sort of spread out to defend their territories. There’s already a history of first wave blacks, you know, the first to enter into a white, say Irish neighborhood, let’s say, or an Italian neighborhood, to try to find a place to live, because they were running out of spaces to–to live in the so called black belt of Chicago. There’s a history of houses being firebombed. We’d rather burn down a house and risk burning down a block, actually, than have this black family move in. There are all kinds of threats when blacks try to de facto integrate white neighborhoods, and now things simply escalated.
In the course of the ensuing–ensuing five-day riot, at least forty people were killed. Two-thirds of them were black. Thousands more, over five thousand, are injured, mostly black, and thousands of families are left homeless. Much like in East St. Louis, police stood by and let white mobs attack blacks. There’s some striking pictures of this in–in Tuttle’s book. Only when the Illinois National Guard is brought in does peace return to the city. It takes days. But there’s a slightly different element to this riot, as far as in sort of the heat of the moment, not its causative factors. It’s that you had such a dense population–a large and dense population of black enclaves. When these white gangs start moving into territories beyond their own turf, like the South Side of Chicago, it was not uncommon during these riots for blacks to set upon them, to defend their turf. So while blacks overwhelmingly–overwhelmingly suffered at the hands of whites during the Chicago riot, one can see a new militancy in the mentality arising among blacks. And to trace this new mentality, and this actually propels us into next week’s lectures on the New Negro. To trace this new mentality, we need to go back to the start of World War I and Du Bois’s call to close ranks.
Chapter 4. The Start of World War I and Du Bois’ Call to Close Ranks [00:16:53]
Although black leaders criticized Du Bois for his editorial, many blacks did heed his call and signed up for duty. Ultimately, around three hundred thousand black men served; half of them serve in Europe during the US involvement in World War I. A call for black officers is made. This is a rather bold departure, and to white officials’ surprise, is actually answered. But now we have a problem. How are you going to train black soldiers? I’ve been talking about the North here, but as it happens, this is really a Southern story at this point, because so many of the country’s forts and training grounds are Southern. Southerners had fears of “armed negroes,” as the phrase would have been, particularly Northern blacks who were now being given guns, who would be quick to anger, they suspected, over how they might be treated in southern towns. They weren’t worried so much about black soldiers, say from Chicago, being trained down in a base in Alabama, as long as they were on the base. They weren’t so much concerned about that. But, you know, people leave the base and they might go into the city. And if they were expecting to be served at a counter, or to go in the front door of a bus, or go in the front door of a restaurant and they weren’t allowed, they’re worried about what might result.
So counter to established military doctrine, or so I understand it, instead of training as entire divisions altogether, divisions were broken up and trained in smaller quantities. They’d be reorganized overseas into their proper military structure, but they also–and they–these are black troops I’m talking about here–weren’t always fighting under the U.S. flag. They trained with French troops. They’d be sent over there to train with French troops and fight under the French flag. So when these black troops trained in un–in unorthodox ways in the U.S. South, in the U.S., get reorganized into proper divisions in the European theater, the great majority of them in France, some fighting under the French flag, when they are not in battle, if they’re on, if they have some leave perhaps and they go into a city or a town in France, they have–an interesting thing starts to happen, is that they’re treated like citizens.
Black soldiers in France would tell stories all the time about–about having their first true feeling of liberty when they were in France. All the white officers and government–government officials, and white offers under–under command to act this way, certainly, they did all that they could do to prevent it. They were still being welcomed by French citizens, and people coming to their rescue. Now there are plenty of stories about white officers fraternizing with black officers in France, in, say, a local restaurant, because the white officer says, “You know, I don’t care what the color of your skin are–is. You happen to be–We’re fighting side by side. We’re doing the same kind of job.” There’s plenty of those stories. I’m not going to categorize all blacks and all whites working a certain way. But there were orders issued about how officers were supposed to control black troops. For example, in 1918, a secret memo was sent to the French military mission that was written by French authorities, but under pressure and after approval by U.S. military authorities, that’s making clear how French troops should deal with black soldiers.
The directive then goes on to list a set of conclusions which I excerpt briefly here. The first conclusion is that, “we must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers.” “We must prevent the rise of any intimacy,” I mean they’re talking just hanging out and socializing between French officers and black officers. “We must not commend too highly the black American troops, particularly in the presence of white Americans.” And another conclusion: “Americans become greatly incensed at any public expression of intimacy between white women with black men.” That same specter arises again. Do not socialize with black officers. Do not–do not commend the troops–the black troops too much, especially in the presence of white Americans. And recognize that Americans get very uneasy, “incensed” it said, at the public expression of intimacy between white women, in this case it would be French women, and black troops. It’s really profound, the extent to which the military and the government’s trying to preserve its social order, even overseas.
Chapter 5. W.E.B. Du Bois Editorial: “Returning Soldiers” [00:23:47]
Well, despite these entreaties, black soldiers are welcomed as heroes in France, and they return to the U.S. quite reasonably with expectations that justice will be theirs, full citizenship rights, since they had risked their lives for the country. For a moment, in truth, it actually looked like things might be better. When the three hundred and sixty-ninth, the first black contingent to fight in the war, the vision that was known as the Hellfighters, the three sixty-ninth, known also for its distinction on the battlefield. When it returns to the U.S. in 1919, roughly one million people watched them parade from the Lower–from Lower Manhattan docks, up Fifth Avenue into Harlem. The symbolism of–I hope you already get it. It’s no small irony in the fact that this is a shift in the direction from the very famous silent protest of ten thousand black men, and women, and children, marching down Fifth Avenue just two years earlier in the wake of the East St. Louis race riots. But now black soldiers are returning as heroes, welcomed by a million people. Change of direction. A change of the notion of who belongs and of citizenship rights and possibility. As it turns out, however, their early optimism was proven wrong quite quickly.
After a decline of several years, over the course of several years, the number of lynchings skyrocket in 1919. Certainly this might be in part of–due to the popularity of Birth of a Nation and the rise of the Klan. The Klan really hits its peak around 1920 to twenty-two, but it’s also quite clear that 1919 is an important marker as far as this is concerned, because of the over eighty-plus recorded lynchings–recorded. There were certainly more–of the recorded eighty-plus lynch victims, at least ten of them were returning soldiers, most of whom were murdered while in their uniform. So the very thing that Southern towns were afraid of happening manifested itself in reality, but in a weird–in a weird sort of way, and certainly a miserable sort of way, Southern towns are afraid, “What are we going to do with these Northern black troops with guns? They might start shooting at us and raising hell.”
Well, I guess their answer, out of their anxiety, was that when these officers or–officers or troops came back, whether they were Northern or Southern, they felt that now they had earned the right to walk in the front door of the restaurant and to get served. They felt they had the right to walk in the front door of the bus instead of the back door of the bus. They felt they had the right to socialize with whomever they wanted to. This was the world they’d become accustomed to in France, and, after all, they had risked their lives in this miserable war. And some of these soldiers were lynched while in uniform for doing just such things as innocuous as talking back to bus drivers, talking to white women, insisting on being served. This is social control at the most grotesque level. Du Bois, you’ll remember, had advocated that African Americans should forget their special grievances, just a year earlier–two years earlier–a year earlier, excuse me. And he sees reports of black soldiers being treated like this, and black citizens, not soldiers, being treated like this, and he realizes he made a grave error. So he writes a new editorial called “Returning Soldiers.” And it says, in part, of course,
I don’t want to make too much of this editorial. It’s an editorial, after all. Crisis was an important magazine. It was very popular. Its readership is skyrocketing, there’s no doubt about that, but it is just an editorial, right?
Chapter 6. Claude McKay Poem: If We Must Die [00:30:12]
Well, if you look at a range of different events, whether it’s political, social, economic, violence in the race riots of 1917, particularly 1919, if you look at a mentality that’s being expressed by soldiers who had fought in the fields of Europe, trench warfare, and come–come back with a heightened sense of what is rightfully theirs, quite reasonably of course, you start to see an insistence. Some certainly called it an impatience, but an insistence amongst black citizens to actually have the rights which they had as American citizens. Blacks still suffered terrible discrimination. They had difficulty securing jobs or decent housing. But with the shock of lynched–lynched soldiers, more than anything else perhaps, the new anger voiced by leaders like Du Bois, there was a clear sense that a new political climate that was about to appear, that insisted more ardently than ever, in fact, that blacks would have their civil rights, that they would have their place at the table, or else.
Now this sentiment is captured most eloquently by poet Claude McKay, who wrote the famous anthem, If We Must Die, in 1919. I actually have it on–on disc, on a–from iTunes. I could play it, but this poem is rather dramatic, and daunting, and challenging. And as it turns out, Claude McKay’s voice is not any of those things. It sounds really–I was so disappointed when I played it the first time, expecting all this great drama, and it’s kind of very high pitched and kind of–it just doesn’t–it lacks the drama. So with apologies to Claude McKay, I’ll read it myself, actually.
I can’t write like him, but I can read the–I can read the poem with a more–a more appropriate voice, I’ll say. Claude McKay writes If We Must Die in 1919, and I mean the timing is no accident. It’s in response to the violence that’s–that’s–that’s being visited upon blacks with–with a routine that is sort of almost mind numbing, violence being visited upon them by the, you know, soldiers being lynched and violence being visited upon them by the–the riots in East St. Louis and Chicago, and also the persistent sort of social and psychological violence that says, “You do not belong,” that you are an alien in your own land. Claude McKay writes:
This poem becomes an anthem for a new mentality, certainly amongst artist-intellectuals from 1919 moving forward. One thing that’s important, and I want to end on this note. And it’s–I confess it’s ending a little earlier than I expected, but I want to end on this note, because it brings together many different strands. The poem is one of social consciousness, of course. It’s in response to the violence that–that Claude McKay has witnessed, or has been reading about certainly. But what you start–what, what you see happening at this, sort of this nexus is the voice of artists–what you’re going to see, I should say, is the voices of artists and intellectuals rising to the forefront, and ushering in this new age of what I’ll just call cultural insistence on being heard. That’s something we’ll be talking about next week when we get to the New Negro Renaissance, more famously or more commonly known as the Harlem Renaissance.
This, although the–I’m getting ahead of myself here. The renaissance, the periodizing of the renaissance is a complicated matter. We can look at this poem in this political moment, in this violent moment, in the moment when the soldiers march up Fifth Avenue to throngs, while some people in that audience were getting ready to kill them. A moment of new awareness, a new racial voice on the American scene. I’m actually going to stop there, but I’m happy to take questions, or if not, we can go our merry ways. Are there any questions at all?
Student: To what extent were communists like, for instance, McKay, militants? In other words, did they–did they condone the use of violence, or were they just in favor of protesting?
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Well what they’re in favor–what the question is dealing with, you know, the link or the connection between communists and militancy and advocacy of violence. I think it’s–a simple way to put it is that what communism is is in a state of profound flux. It’s just being articulated, you know, at this moment, and you’re going to see more of that going through the 1920s into the 1930s. [looks down] Oops. But the–so whether some advocated–some communists advocated violence, some advocated something else, it just depends on the–on the individual. McKay and others, you know these people who traveled to Russia and then the Soviet Union, trying to find answers, you actually have–and I’m glad you asked it, because I won’t be talking about it so much in this class, I don’t think–you have throughout the 1920s, thirties, and into the forties, mostly in the 1930s, certainly the rise of pop–the popular rise of Communism amongst black Americans. I’ll say something about that later on. But you actually have a large number of African Americans, especially professionals, who become card carrying communists, but never talk about it loudly, because they’ll lose their jobs. A lot of teachers, especially, and certainly many more who were sympathetic to Communism.
Now were they sympathetic to it because they advocated a class struggle? For many of them no, because they were occupying a niche in black America that accrued benefits. You know, these were the middle-class in many ways. But were they–they were seeking civil rights. And this is something I will come back to, is that you look at the popularity of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party amongst African Americans. It wasn’t necessarily because they’re advocating the overthrow of the capital machinery. It’s that they were advocating, in the U.S., a version of Communism, full civil rights for African Americans, and that was, that was the thing. That was the quest for African Americans, citizenship. Yes?
Student: What was the readership of poems like Claude McKay’s in the editorials?
Professor Jonathan Holloway: You know, it’s always hard to gauge the readership of–of, well of anything, and–and especially in this case, and also like the Chicago Defender and the editorials that I mentioned before and that you saw in the–that you have in the documents, because a lot of these documents will be read by communities. And I mean that literally in the sense that, you know, you might have the paper coming down and ending up in a barbershop or a black public sphere–space, black public space–space where you don’t know how many people are actually literate there necessarily. These things are being read out loud, they’re being passed along, they’re, you know, going from the barbershop, to the beauty parlor, to the dining room table. So readership, we don’t–we don’t really know, but when I talk about Claude McKay’s If We Must Die having importance, it becomes an anthem. And in that way, in that way, I mean to imply that it was known. Whether people know all the words or not is something different, but they know about it, and they know this is a call to a new kind of mentality that they’re ready to embrace as well.
I mean, something they thought was right there, when the three sixty-ninth walked–marched up to, what I should have said, to white and black applause, going up to–up, up in Harlem. These were national heroes. But on local–and when it came down to local matters, they were treated quite differently. But we’ll see in next week’s reading interesting terrain about–around that kind of question of who’s following who. Overlapping this, and I’m getting into Monday’s lecture a little bit, is the rise of Marcus–Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Do I talk that much about Monday or not? I don’t know. But that–that is incredibly popular during this period and that’s a, sort of a X factor that’s not mentioned for the sake of clarity in today’s lecture. I’ll clean that up a bit on Monday. Yes?
Student: You were talking about a greater state of egalitarianism in France.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Yeah
Student: And I–I understand why in the–the context of World War I that made sense, when France was so desperate, but was France a much more egalitarian society considering they’d had these brutal colonial endeavors, you know in Algiers and in the several different cities in the world?
Professor Jonathan Holloway: But it wasn’t in Paris. I mean, I mean talking–the question’s about, you know, the what’s the reality versus the perception–the perception versus the reality of egalitarianism in France, and thinking about France as a pretty vicious colonial state, especially in Francophone Africa. There’s no doubt that there’s the–the mixed reality there. You have a lot of black soldiers going over to France. And what I didn’t mention, a lot of them stayed. It’s like, “I’m not going back.” And you have during this period the rise of an incredibly popular movement, I mean this American musical art form, jazz, becomes incredibly popular in France, especially Paris, during that time. Jazz musicians, dancers, etcetera–and I’ll be mentioning a bit of this this time next week–are in the Parisian scene and are incredible stars, and just don’t want to go back, because they know they’re going to be treated horribly back–back home.
There is a–a rising awareness of what’s actually happening in places like Algeria during the same period, especially as some of the intellectuals start coming to Paris and interacting with African American intellectuals and artists, and interacting in very curious ways, in very complicated ways. This actually becomes more prominent as you head towards the Second World War, and the rise of anti-colonialist movements. We aren’t quite sort of there yet as far as it being articulated. But there’s always the difference between what’s happening in the center and what’s happening in the provinces, about what–what reality looks like. Anything else? Okay, have a lovely day. Thank you.
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