African Americans


The spiritually-charged rhetoric of America’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy, rhetoric that spoke of human rights, was ironic, considering that Jim Crow was the law of the land across the south.  African Americans noted the hypocrisy of the United War Work Campaign’s call for nationalist unity while most white Americans did not regard African Americans as their equals. While the Campaign and other war drive efforts championed the nobleness of the American cause, African American citizens still struggled with inequality and discrimination at home. The United War Work Campaign spoke of an unified, egalitarian America in its literature and advertisements, but the reality was that African Americans were not accepted or granted equality by the society around them.


Figure 1. African-American soldiers in France.
Figure 1. African-American soldiers in France. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A combination of discriminatory laws in the South and the pull of industrial jobs in the north resulted in a black exodus northward  in the years prior to U.S. entry into the war. Between half a million and a million African Americans left the south around the time of the Great War.[1] Racial violence and discrimination still followed these migrants. A race riot in East Saint Louis, Illinois in the summer of 1917 left dozens of African Americans dead and many more displaced.[2] Despite such racial incidents, African American soldiers still enlisted and 10% of the U.S. Army during the war was African American.[3] This flew in the face of white supremacy in the south and tension often arose between black soldiers and near-by white citizens. The most famous incident was the Houston riot of August 1917. When an African American soldier stepped in to prevent a white police officer from beating a black woman, tensions flared, black troops marched into Houston and wide-spread violence erupted. In the debris of the incident, twenty soldiers and citizens lay dead and sixty African American soldiers were charged with mutiny.[4] Incidents such as these riots stayed in the mind of African American leaders, who questioned the sincerity of America’s crusade for humanity. In a letter to Wilson, one citizen commented that to African Americans , “Americanism means nothing and America is unsafe.” [5]

The United War Work Campaign and African Americans

A headline in the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper.
Figure 2. A headline in an African-American newspaper. The Chicago Defender, April 13, 1918. Courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Despite the injustices they suffered on the home front, most African American leaders urged their fellow citizens to fully support the U.S. war effort. The United War Work Campaign was one such effort. The leaders of the campaign established a Campaign among Colored People Division that focused primarily on receiving donations from the African American community.[6]
One of this organization’s pamphlets urged its employees to remind citizens that their money was “from the colored people for the colored soldiers.”[7] It appears that African Americans were among some of the greatest supporters of the campaign, despite a conspicuous lack of mention of color and race in United War Work Campaign ads and posters. It is also perhaps not a coincidence that the southern states, with the highest populations of African Americans at the time, were the most successful fundraisers for the campaign.[8] While past campaigns, such as the Red Cross drive, had typically hired whites to raise money in African American communities, the United War Work Campaign turned to African American community leaders to fund raise in African American areas, to much avail. [9] The Cleveland Gazette, an African American publication, proudly related how African Americans in one North Carolina county had raised the quota of $14,000 that the entire county was aiming for. [10]

Still, African Americans did not reap benefits from their participation in the fundraising. Messenger, an African American newspaper from New York, lamented how African American men had donated generously to the United War Work Campaign and to other war drives to no avail. “In spite of this, the only thing which he still holds are the bonds; he has not gotten the liberty nor is it anywhere in sight.” [11] Segregation still persisted in the South. Violence and discrimination followed migrating African Americans from the Deep South north of the Mason-Dixon Line. African Americans who had fought in the war, supported the war effort and given to the United War Work Campaign saw little improvement in their situation.

            [1] Joe William Trotter Jr., “The Great Migration,” OAH Magazine of History 17, no. 1 (October 1, 2002): 31–33.

            [2] Kidada E Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 165.

          [3] Arthur P Young, Books for Sammies: The American Library Association and World War I (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Beta Phi Mu, 1981), 38.

           [4]  Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, 164-5.

          [5] Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, 165.

          [6] Campaign among Colored People. (New York, N.Y. :, 1918),

           [7] Campaign among Colored People. (New York, N.Y. :, 1918), 3.

           [8]“EASTERN STATES LAG IN WAR WORK DRIVE: Many in South and Middle West Pass Original Quotas and Will Oversubscribe Heavily. $125,000,000 MARK PASSED Demobilization of Army Will Be Slow, Says Baker–Appeal Issued to Arouse New York. Southern States Over the Top. Success Depends on East. Victory Engrossed Public Mind. Monthly Installments Urged. Pastors Appeal to Congregations.,” New York Times, November 18, 1918,

            [9] Mary Church Terrell, page 409, Box 26, Reel 19, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

           [10] “For the Boys Over There,” The Cleveland Gazette, November 16, 1918.

           [11]“George E. Hayes Compomises the Case of the Negro Once Again,” Messenger: New Opinion of the Negro, July 1, 1919, Volume II, Issue 7.