Vanguards of the New Negro: African American Veterans and Post-World War I Racial Militancy

Article excerpt

On 28 July 1919 African American war veteran Harry Haywood, only three months removed from service in the United States Army, found himself in the midst of a maelstrom of violence and destruction on par with what he had experienced on the battlefields of France. The previous day, simmering tensions between black and white residents of Chicago reached a boiling point following the stoning and subsequent drowning of young Eugene Williams who had dared to challenge the color-line at Lake Michigan's 29th Street beach. As he returned to the city following his latest run as a waiter on the Michigan Central Railroad, Haywood, formerly a soldier in the highly decorated 8th Illinois National Guard (370th Infantry Regiment), learned of the riot and feared the worst. A white coworker validated his anxiety, cautioning him against entering the southside of the city because, "There's a big race riot going on out there, and already this morning, a couple of colored soldiers were killed coming in unsuspectingly." While most likely rumor, the warning punctuated Haywood's disillusionment with the facade of American democracy stemming from his battles with the systemic racism of the U.S. Army and deepened his resolve to actively resist the brewing assault on Chicago's black community. After briefly reuniting with his family, Haywood immediately went to the 8th Illinois Armory and met with fellow veterans of the regiment to prepare a military style defense of their neighborhood from Irish rioters. Stocked with a cache of 1903 Springfield rifles and a browning sub-machine gun procured from the armory, Haywood and his comrades established positions in an apartment overlooking 51st Street, and stood ready to utilize their military training in anticipation of an impending evening attack. Haywood recalled similar actions taken throughout the South's Black Belt by other groups of African American veterans. (1)

Although no ambush occurred, the Chicago race riot indelibly transformed Haywood's racial and political consciousness. As he wrote in his autobiography, "the war and the riots of the 'Red Summer' of 1919 left me bitter and frustrated. I felt that I could never again adjust to the situation of Black inequality." The warlike nature of American race relations in the aftermath of World War I prompted many black veterans to question the meaning of their service and seek new strategies for achieving racial justice. After a period of intellectual self-discovery, Haywood joined the radical African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), a secret paramilitary organization founded by Cyril Briggs, editor of The Crusader, and committed to the defense of black people, the liberation of Africa, and the destruction of global capitalism. Upon its dissolution, he became a member of the Communist Party and emerged as one of its most influential black leaders. Racially enlightened and deeply politicized as a result of their experiences, African American veterans like Haywood represented and embodied the New Negro of the post-World War I era. (2)

This essay examines how the activism and racial militancy of black veterans fundamentally shaped the historical development and ideological diversity of the New Negro movement. The New Negro movement, rooted in the political consciousness and collective racial identity of black people in communities throughout the United States and the African Diaspora more broadly, was a product of the domestic and global upheavals of World War I and its aftermath. While the etymology of the term dates to the post-Reconstruction era, when a new generation of African Americans sought to distance themselves from slavery and its legacy, the vast social, political, and demographic transformations brought about by the global conflict made the New Negro of the war and postwar periods substantively distinct from previous historical epochs. Scholars have examined the various factors that gave rise to the New Negro, which included black migration, international revolutionary movements, most notably in Russia and Ireland, the growth of a radical black press, the emergence of a host of new racially militant political organizations, and most significantly a spirit of defiance stemming from the disillusioning experience of black support for and military participation in the war. …

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