Tuesday, Nov. 13 marked the last installment of this year’s Veterans Awareness Week on campus with a lecture entitled “African American Soldiers In World War I.” The lecture was given by guest speaker Dr. Jennifer Keene, a history professor at Chapman University.
The event was hosted and sponsored by Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society, the Department of History and Political Science and the Office of Military and Veterans Services and took place at the Los Angeles Pacific College (LAPC) Boardroom from 3:30-5 p.m.
As a historian, Keene specializes in U.S. military and WWI events. She has written several books on these topics including a comprehensive history book about WWI. To mark the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, she chose to discuss the intricacies of the first world war. Keene said that “[WWI] doesn’t have a great place in the [American] narrative” despite it being “a transformative period for the United States.”
Keene explained that part of this is due to an imbalanced narrative where the experience of African American soldiers is not commonly discussed. By contextualizing the experience of African American soldiers in the first world war, Keene hoped to share an experience that would be significant for all of American society, not just the soldiers who served.
“Sometimes we think that only exceptional people can make things change,” Keene said. “But when you hear the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things, it makes you realize that you can make a difference as well.”
Among the African American soldiers Keene discussed were people like Charles Isum and Horace Pippin who, despite facing hardships before, during and after the war, spent the rest of their lives trying to make a difference within their communities. These were everyday men, Keene said, who served their country in hopes of receiving the freedoms they were fighting for. Instead of becoming equals in society, they were expected to accept that their contributions changed nothing; they were still second class citizens.
This did not stop them from speaking up, though. Keene says the actions within WWI lit a “flame” inside these men that encouraged them to fight for their rights every chance they got. For Pippin, she explained, this meant painting battle scenes with a hand he broke in the war. For Isum, it meant suing a restaurant that charged him more because he was black and fighting for liberties in everyday life.
“We should stop thinking that we need a Martin Luther King to solve all our problems,” Keene said. “In fact, he benefited from all these earlier actions by individuals who just refused to accept the status quo … so we can all make a difference.”
Segregation had been an issue before the war started, and while some African American men joined the military to earn their freedoms and prove that they were just as much an American as their white counterparts, they soon realized that this hope was not so easily attained. In signing up for the draft, they had to tear off a corner of the application slip to indicate that they were African American, and once in the army, they were segregated into different groups as well.
While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had made it possible for African American men to take on leadership positions in the military, white racists sometimes falsely reported them for having had done something they didn’t do. This meant that some men lost their positions, though they had not broken the rules.
“There were some steps forward,” Keene said. “But still many problems.”
Other times, Keene said, the rules would be made to purposely keep African American men in submissive positions. While many of them wanted to fight in the war to prove their patriotism, they were instead forced to work on the docs loading and unloading boxes of supplies. These men were also forced to wear overalls either over or instead of their military uniforms. “This was an intentional decision,” Keene said. “It reminded them that they weren’t soldiers, but workers.”
Keene also noted that there were many African American soldiers like the Harlem Hellfighters who fought bravely in battle. For Keene, telling both of these sides of the story was crucial because it said something about the history, the culture and the experience that impacted generations to come.
African Americans were not included in traditional WWI propaganda; instead, they had to privately publish their own posters to motivate each other to have national pride and to fight for their liberties. One of the three privately published poster Keene shared with the audience read, “The colored man is no slacker,” which was a term that white men used against black men to claim they were lazy in their patriotism.
Once they enlisted for the draft, African Americans were segregated and undervalued. Once they got home, they were expected to accept life as it was: discriminatory and one-sided. Yet, Keene said, they could not go back to the way things were. Their experiences during the time of WWI changed them. As Keene said, “[African Americans] were embracing this ethos of fighting back. This ethos the entire generation supports … ” They were fighting, Keene said, “to save democracy at home.”
Retired Major General Peter James Gravett attended the lecture. He said, “Veteran awareness is part of American history. America would not be what it is today without veterans … we would not have the freedoms we have today.”
Keene had a similar idea.
“Whatever you get can also be taken,” she said. “We shouldn’t be complacent that these people brought us here and we’re certain to stay here. You can backtrack as well.”