THE FALSE PROMISES OF PROPAGANDA: AFRICAN-AMERICANS AND THE GREAT WAR IN THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION

This past Friday, Professor Monika Pobog-Weckert and sixteen Miami Ad School/FIU students came to The Wolfsonian for an orientation and lecture-presentation on the topic of propaganda art of the First World War. On an earlier visit, the students had been guided through a tour of the museum’s current installation, Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture; yesterday’s visit focused on The Children’s Crusade, an exhibition of rare children’s propaganda books, puzzles, games, and postcards from World War I curated by half a dozen Florida International University History undergraduates last semester.

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Before coming upstairs to review the exhibit, I guided the class through our library and digital image catalogs to show the students how to access some of our war propaganda materials virtually, and to deconstruct and critically analyze visual evidence.

As it is Black History Month, I thought that for the purposes of this post I would focus on some materials in the collection that provide insight into the experiences of African-Americans during the Great War, beginning with a couple of posters designed to recruit persons of color into the Armed Services. Given that African-Americans were relegated to second class citizenship, were frequently prevented from participating in elections, and were subjected to residential segregation and innumerable forms of prejudice in the United States, propagandists designing posters aimed at recruiting them in the fight to “make the world safe for democracy” overseas had real challenges to address to overcome “Negro” skepticism. A couple of posters printed by E. G. Renesch used a number of subtle techniques to imply that this was a war worth fighting.

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The first poster, titled True Blue depicts a Middle Class African-American mother and her three children: two young girls in white nightgowns, and an older boy wearing a military-style jacket. The family is pictured gathered around the hearth fire with the wholesomeness and romanticism of a Norman Rockwell painting. Three presidential portraits adorn the wall above the mantel: the nation’s first president, George Washington; the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln; and the current president, Woodrow Wilson. While the “head” of the household is missing, his image appears in a flag-draped framed picture wearing a military uniform and cap; his physical absence is explained by the placement of a service flag in the window intended to let their neighbors know that the man of the family was doing his patriotic duty overseas.

Another recruiting poster printed by E. G. Renesch in The Wolfsonian collection is titled: Colored Man Is No Slacker. Although we most commonly associate the last word in the title with someone who is lazy, during the “Great War,” calling someone a “slacker” was the equivalent of calling that person a “draft-dodger.” In the foreground of the poster, a young African-American couple say their goodbyes as a column of uniformed Black soldiers march in the background. The poster primarily uses earth tone shades of tan and olive-green colors, making the red, white, and blue American flag stand out all the more. Although slightly muted, the colors of “Old Glory” are replicated in the blue dress with white trim worn by the African-American woman, and the rose bushes to her left and right—equating love of a good woman with love of country.

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The facial features of the couple appear to have been rendered in such a manner as to deliberately obscure their racial identity, as was the color used for their skin tone. The printer matched their skin to the khaki color of the uniforms worn by the soldiers as if to imply that if they donned the uniform of the United States, they would be seen (and be respected) as soldiers rather than degraded as “Negroes.” Seemingly confirming this interpretation, I was able to locate another recruiting poster by the same printer that employs virtually the same subtle strategies, but makes no attempt to blur the racial identity of the Caucasian soldiers and couple depicted.

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If such propaganda was designed to imply that patriotic African-Americans could expect better treatment during and after the war, it was a false promise. Racial prejudice in the United States was so powerful as to dictate and demand that the prevailing social norms in America be extended to the American Expeditionary Forces serving overseas.

The vast majority of African-American enlistees were relegated to support service, working long and burdensome shifts as stevedores, cooks, and in other non-combative roles. While General Pershing actively promoted Lieutenant James Reese Europe’s “Harlem Hellfighters” Jazz band as “good will ambassadors” in France, the commander of the AEF was loath to deploy African-Americans in combat missions. He did, however, loan out the 371st Infantry to his French allies. Equipped, armed, and led by French (white) commanders, these African-American troops demonstrated their courage under fire.

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Another “colored” regiment led by its white commanding officer, Colonel Thomas A. Roberts was brigaded with the 59th Division of the Tenth French Army under General Vincendon. The French artist Joseph-Félix Boucher (1853-1937) memorialized the colonel and his French liaison officers in a painting reproduced in The American Army in France (1917-1919). The accompanying text written for an American audience claimed that “while the colored infantrymen were usually good, their colored officers were usually incompetent, and lacked the quality of leadership.”

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The French, at least, recognized the heroism of a number of African-American troops with the distinguished “Croix de Guerre” medal.

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Private Henry Johnson was the first African-American trooper to be awarded the Croix de Guerre for his heroic actions in hand-to-hand combat with a superior force of Germans.

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African-American women also did their part in the Great War. The Wolfsonian library holds a copy of Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces, a rare book published just after the war. It documents the services rendered (and prejudices endured) by patriotic African-American women serving overseas with the YMCA.

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Sadly, the implicit “promises” of the recruiting posters were not fulfilled in the aftermath of the Great War. Although the African-American troops who fought so bravely to safeguard democracy abroad were initially greeted with a celebratory parade, serious racial strife, numerous race-riots, and lynchings dogged the returning “colored” veterans soon after their arrival back in the United States.

~ by "The Chief" on February 8, 2015.

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