The year of 1865 is recognized as the year in which African Americans gained their freedom from the institution of slavery: Abraham Lincoln approved of the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished the institution, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, and African Americans were liberated from the institution that marked blacks as inherently inferior to whites. However, prior to the Civil War there had been numerous occasions where African Americans resisted and fought against the institution of slavery. Individuals such as Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and Dred Scott, who, in seeking to claim their freedom or die trying, inspired a people to defend their humanity.
Indeed, in their quest to be free from the degradation, exploitation, and out-right sacrifice of human life, African American men and women survived and chanced to see the promised-land based on their own resourcefulness. This tradition of resistance would be passed down and handed across generations, as African Americans would work to create a world of their own; one that valued family, community, and heroism, through sacrifice for the greater good.
By 1915, more than fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than eighty percent of the nation’s African American population still lived and toiled in the South under the neo-slavery system of sharecropping. This dehumanizing system resisted any attempt on the part of black farmers to claim anything that resembled independence, progress, or success.
Moreover, through the exploitive system sharecroppers were constantly in debt to white merchants and landowners who provided no sense of security or any opportunity to save for the future. Indeed, sharecropping functioned to secure the black farmers’ second-class citizenship and sought to deny any sense of manhood that black men could achieve through successfully producing a profitable crop.
To be sure, sharecropping was a family business and no one could be spared from the fields to watch over a small child during the planting and harvesting seasons. The fields had to be tended and there was always work to do. As soon as they were able to walk, the children of sharecroppers participated in the daily rigors associated with farming, laboring along side the rest of the family. Sharecropping did not provide African American families with any sense of hope or deliverance.
For children, the rural southern educational system of Alabama offered certain challenges associated with receiving a quality education. First, the system was segregated to prevent African American and white children from attending the same school. Second, the facilities used by African American children were inadequate and frequently unsafe. Third, the school year for African American children was generally from October to April, given that they helped in the fields by planting or harvesting from May to September.
Indeed, most teachers of African American children were poorly trained and somewhat illiterate themselves. In reality, African American children of sharecropping families of the South faced a life where their labor was valued more than their education: their bodies more than their minds
Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.; let him get an eagle on his buttons and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.
-Frederick Douglass, July 6, 1863
Clearly, Douglass’ comments, in reference to African Americans serving in the military during the Civil War, spoke to the transformative nature of wearing a United States military uniform and the signifying qualities associated with that action. By 1917, the year the United States entered the Great World War, Douglass’ observations were still quite relevant, almost prophetic. Nevertheless, similar to the conflict between the “North” and the “South,” African Americans initially were not sought after to fight in the European theater of war.
On May 18, 1917 Congress passed the Selective Service Act authorizing the registration and draft of all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty, including African Americans. Nearly four hundred thousand black men were drafted into the army, where a majority would be assigned to labor and engineering battalions responsible for unloading supplies, digging trenches, and repairing battle torn fields. To be sure, this limited role would not suffice. As a result of African American protests against the denial of leadership positions within the armed services, the War Department created all black officer training camps throughout the nation.
By October 1917, the first, Fort Des Moines (Iowa) graduated more than 600 junior officers ready for service. Still, the army limited the participation of these qualified officers on the front lines in France. The deeply entrenched racism that had been responsible for shaping black and white relations, which was perpetuated by the “Jim Crow” policies advanced by the Wilson administration, functioned to block African American officers from leading both black and white troops into combat, and black women war workers from serving on the front lines. What is more, the record of African American soldiers and volunteers serving heroically and honorably in defense of the nation would be restricted and downplayed by white Americans seeking to maintain their claims to racial superiority.
Despite the many obstacles thrown before them, African American soldiers and volunteers found opportunities to demonstrate their courage, bravery and citizenship in the face of institutional racism. Indeed, the displays of bravery and patriotism, and a genuine belief in America’s potential were recognized by these African American men and women as proof of their full-citizenship. Their service and dedication would advance the process of freedom, thereby inspiring the next generation of black leaders to continue to fight for equality.