Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

May 3, 1919

Guest post by Andrew Mullinnix, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.

On May 3, 1919, St. Paul’s African-American newspaper, The Appeal, published a lively editorial, originally published in the Cincinnati Herald, making a powerful comparison. “Bruce Grit Files Strong Demurrer against Moton’s Methods” discusses the handling of European racial issues post–World War I compared to domestic issues at home. In particular, the chief complaint being expressed is the inability of African Americans to get passports. Many African Americans blamed Woodrow Wilson who reigned as president over this period of time.

Wilson’s presidency has commonly been critiqued for his racial policies. Even prior, during his tenure as president of the prestigious Princeton University, he made a statement proclaiming his pride in the lack of African Americans at his institute during his stay. These Jim Crow policies, which had been slowly fought against since Lincoln's “Emancipation Proclamation,”  found their way onto the federal stage during his presidency. This particular piece uses well-crafted subtitles: “An Absolute Monarchy!” and “No, An Absolute Democracy! But Wilson Reigns!” These effectively demonstrate how blacks felt within the country about Wilson’s policies. Keeping in mind that World War I had ended the year previously, a large amount of the sentiment found during the war remains evident in this piece.

World War I was a heightened period of change for African Americans; some eventually found their way into the trenches where they were unfortunately unable to escape Jim Crow. However, some had interactions with more pleasant folk; African-American soldiers occasionally found themselves amongst North and West African troops who made up large portions of the French military. During these times the African Americans often felt a greater sense of belonging while aligned with the French, as not only were Africans in better standing but even the civilians gave a warm welcome. These interactions, along with the preconceived notion of France’s equality, left a bitter taste in the mouths of many GIs returning home. This quite clearly is present in the mind of the author, as the direct comparison between American and French treatment is pushed to the forefront.

Back home, a significant portion of African Americans remained throughout the Great War. This, in combination with the lack of migrants now coming from the traditional European theatre, left an unprecedented demand for relatively higher paying jobs. The American war machine increased the demand for labor in northern factories. This resulted in the Great Migration, with nearly half a million black southerners packing up their bags and heading north. Seemingly overnight, entire cities like Detroit possessed large black populations.

This period of increased stress shows true within this particular opinion piece, the tone of which is clearly disdainful. The author uses France as a prime example of the superior treatment of its citizens. Additionally, this piece uses powerful imagery in the form of quotations, one of which is “’Tis another case of the ostrich sticking it’s head in the sand and feeling it’s body is hid.” This one in particular ridicules the United States government in a creative fashion, passing the author’s message along brilliantly, that despite currently trying to democratize the post–world war stage, it was unable to uphold its own constitution.

Personally, I have to applaud the brave individual for posting such an aggressive editorial piece; this is certainly what drew me to it. The tone is sharp, painting a picture of man who simply is through with the country he calls home. This anger adds an often mute personal touch to the piece. This sensationalism really permits the reader to get a feel for the distrust for the American government by many African Americans at this time. 

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