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On April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson thrust the United States into World War I by declaring, "The world must be made safe for democracy." For the 380,000 African American soldiers who fought and labored in the global conflict, these words carried life or death meaning. Relating stories bridging the war and postwar years, spanning the streets of Chicago and the streets of Harlem, from the battlefields of the American South to the battlefields of the Western Front, Chad L. Williams reveals the central role of African ...
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On April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson thrust the United States into World War I by declaring, "The world must be made safe for democracy." For the 380,000 African American soldiers who fought and labored in the global conflict, these words carried life or death meaning. Relating stories bridging the war and postwar years, spanning the streets of Chicago and the streets of Harlem, from the battlefields of the American South to the battlefields of the Western Front, Chad L. Williams reveals the central role of African American soldiers in World War I and how they, along with race activists and ordinary citizens alike, committed to fighting for democracy at home and beyond.
Using a diverse range of sources, Williams connects the history of African American soldiers and veterans to issues such as the obligations of citizenship, combat and labor, diaspora and internationalism, homecoming and racial violence, "New Negro" militancy, and African American historical memories of the war. Democracy may have been distant from the everyday lives of African Americans at the dawn of the war, but it nevertheless remained a powerful ideal that sparked the hopes of black people throughout the country for societal change. Torchbearers of Democracy reclaims the legacy of black soldiers and establishes the World War I era as a defining moment in the history of African Americans and peoples of African descent more broadly.
Posted October 23, 2010
[Reviewer's note: I have used Negro and Colored where I would normally use Black in this review. These men thought of themselves in these terms and I do so out of respect for them.]
Approximately 50 years after the American Civil War People of Color lived in an America we cannot image. The Civil War ended slavery and Reconstruction had given Negro males the vote. However, discrimination had taken most of the promises and many of the advances away. The majority of Negros live in the southern states under strict Jim Crow laws. They are a rural people careful in their conduct and subject to lynching for any infractions. America averages over 80 of these a year between 1882 and 1916. The great migration to the North is starting but major movement is years away. The North, while lacking Jim Crow laws, has customs that have almost the same impact. Discrimination is rampart and race riots are not uncommon. Negros exist in a separate and unequal America. Distrusted, hated and often exploited they do their best to advance themselves and their race. Lynching is not restricted to the South either. While not as common, Northern race riots occur often.
America enters World War I to "make the world safe for democracy" without considering the status of its' colored population. This cruel joke is not lost on the Negro press but practical considerations make it necessary to support the war effort. These considerations, the legal and social discrimination aside the majority of Negros were patriotic and supported the war.
The United States Army reflects the society it serves and protects. In spite of the experiences since the Civil War, the Army harbors doubts about Negros making good soldiers. The core of United States Colored Troops and Negro National Guard units should be all right. These are units with years of training and discipline. The draftees will not have these advantages nor will they be of the same caliber. Therefore, they are best be used as labor battalions.
This is a complex book. It is part military history, part social history and part commentary. The author presents a clear unvarnished look at America in World War I. This is not a pleasant picture. The Houston race riot, Woodrow Wilson, Army policies, training and white soldiers conspires against them. In spite of this, they continued trying to be men, soldiers and Americans.
The book is not limited to Negro units and their problems. The author expands the story to include the communities back home and the organizations serving soldiers. A secondary story involves American Negro units and French African units. This is a look at the question of race in Europe. Things in France are very different and can be very upsetting. The army's efforts to curb French/Negro contacts are a third story that could be a book.
World War I made a huge impact on Americans and changed their attitudes forever. Race was not a limiting factor as Negros saw a world of possibilities. Part II: Peace? Looks at these changes as America starts to face "New Negroes". The chapter "Lest We Forget" looks at how we remember or fail to remember these men.
This well-written book is a history of their efforts and a fitting tribute to them. I will not say this is an enjoyable read. Chad L. Williams is an excellent author, clear concise, descriptive and easy to read. He avoids the soapbox by sticking to facts and recollections of the people involved. [B&N truncates this revi
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