Black Newspapers and America's War for Democracy, 1914-1920

Black Newspapers and America's War for Democracy, 1914-1920

Black Newspapers and America's War for Democracy, 1914-1920

Black Newspapers and America's War for Democracy, 1914-1920


During World War I, the publishers of America's crusading black newspapers faced a difficult dilemma. Would it be better to advance the interests of African Americans by affirming their patriotism and offering support of President Wilson's war for democracy in Europe, or should they demand that the government take concrete steps to stop the lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement of blacks at home as a condition of their participation in the war?

This study of their efforts to resolve that dilemma offers important insights into the nature of black protest, race relations, and the role of the press in a republican system. William Jordan shows that before, during, and after the war, the black press engaged in a delicate and dangerous dance with the federal government and white America--at times making demands or holding firm, sometimes pledging loyalty, occasionally giving in.

But although others have argued that the black press compromised too much, Jordan demonstrates that, given the circumstances, its strategic combination of protest and accommodation was remarkably effective. While resisting persistent threats of censorship, the black press consistently worked at educating America about the need for racial justice.


When the Richmond, Virginia, postmaster, Hay T. Thornton, picked up a copy of the Richmond Planet on Thursday, August 2, 1917, a letter to the editor on the front page caught his attention. the country had been at war for four months, and since mid-June, Thornton and every other postmaster had been instructed to forward to the Postmaster General's Office in Washington any “unsealed matter”—newspapers and other publications with second-class mailing status—that was “calculated … to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, or in any other way to embarrass or hamper the Government.” Federal law required postal officials to revoke the second-class status of any publication matching this description.

The author of the letter in question, twenty-eight-year-old Howard University graduate Uzziah Miner, said that he would not volunteer for service in the armed forces because the East St. Louis riot showed that the “‘World Democracy’ which President Wilson preaches” did not apply to blacks. “I fail to see how I can conscientiously volunteer to fight for a ‘World Democracy’ while I am denied the fruits and blessings of a Democracy at home,” Miner wrote.

Thornton decided Miner's letter could be construed as fostering resistance to the war effort or at least as an attempt to embarrass the federal government. He showed the newspaper to Richmond's assistant district attorney, Hiram M. Smith, who deemed Miner's letter “a clear violation” of the Espionage Act, a law Congress had passed that spring to prevent sabotage of the war effort by enemy agents. Thornton forwarded a copy of the paper to Post Office Solicitor William H. Lamar, who would rule from Washington on whether the issue could be delivered. Meanwhile, Thornton said nothing to Mitchell, and eighteen . . .

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