African-American voices of 1918

In 1918, African-Americans were almost invisible in the mainstream press. The New York Times, in a January 6 story called “Problems in Training Negro Soldiers,” groused that the “friends of the negro” were pressuring the War Department, which had drafted 83,600 black soldiers, to solve the “so-called race question in America.” The only other reference to African-Americans I’ve seen so far in the Times was the inclusion of an “unidentified Negro woman” on a list of New Yorkers—the rest were all named—who died of exposure during a cold snap.

I sought out African-American voices in honor of Martin Luther King Day, and found them in the January 1918 edition of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine, which was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s the best-written and most interesting magazine of the time that I’ve come across, and it feels the most contemporary.

An article by Lindsey Cooper on the 1917 East St. Louis race riots is the closest thing I’ve seen to modern long-form journalism. Framed as a report on the congressional investigation into the riots—which was conducted, of course, exclusively by white men—it provides an in-depth discussion of the social forces that sparked them. Across the Mississippi from St. Louis and home to many of the area’s African-Americans, East St. Louis, Illinois, was a cesspool of vice. The city subsided mainly by means of saloon licenses (376 saloons for a population of 75,000) because a separate municipality—the nation’s richest per capita—had been carved out for nearby factories.

When the white workers of St. Louis tried to unionize, factory owners thwarted their efforts by hiring black workers arriving from the South. This led to a cauldron of racial resentment that boiled over in an explosion of violence in May and July 1917. At least forty African-Americans were killed as police stood by ineptly or indifferently; some encouraged the violence. The National Guard was called, to little effect.  Cooper recounts the story of a man and his son who were dragged out of a car and killed as they passed through East St. Louis on the way home from a fishing expedition. A member of Congress, told of the incident during the hearing, commented, “Indians could have done no worse.”

The Crisis also includes the best short story I’ve seen so far, “The Way of the Transgressor,” by Wallace Green. Green doesn’t try any fancy literary tricks, but the story is refreshingly lacking in the archness and overwriting of the day. It tells of a rural square dance that ends in a blaze of violence, but the best part is the depiction of the dance before the guns come out. I felt like I was there at Uncle Tom Morgan’s two-room log house, watching handsome Jack Sutton and tender-eyed Sealy Green walk down the center of the yard arm in arm “like two monarchs upon streets paved with gold, singing ‘You can’t turn the tea like me.’” Young men longed to swing in the beautiful arms of Pet Henderson, in “a red garment that fit her so well that she seemed to have been just taken out of the melting pot.”

And there’s more. A blazing indictment of the hypocrisy of racist white Christians. A letter from “A Voice from the Orient” calling Wilson out for racism. Another letter, apparently from a white Cuban-American soldier, telling of his experience under the inspiring leadership of the Afro-Cuban general Antonio Maceo in the Cuban Army of Liberation. And a refreshingly unsentimental “Mother’s New Year’s Resolution”: “I will live with my children, not merely for them; since such companionship is worth more than divergent ways, marked by needless sacrifices on the one side and a growing selfishness on the other…I will impart to my children the facts of life, that they may look with reverence upon their bodies.”

You can find The Crisis online, thanks to the Modernist Journals Project, at http://www.modjourn.org/render.php?view=mjp_object&id=crisiscollection. It’s well worth a read, on Martin Luther King Day or any day.

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