Academic journal article Journalism History

Ralph W. Tyler: The Unknown Correspondent of World War I

Academic journal article Journalism History

Ralph W. Tyler: The Unknown Correspondent of World War I

Article excerpt

Ralph Waldo Tyler, an Ohio newspaperman and political operative, was the only African-American accredited by the U.S. government as a war correspondent in World War I. As an employee of the Committee on Public Information, he also served as an observer of prejudice in the Allied Expeditionary Force for Emmett J. Scott, special assistant to the secretary of war for race relations. This article examines the scope of Tyler's war correspondence and the difficulties he faced in carrying out his dual roles as a journalist and a government employee. It concludes that he provided admirable service to the government, the soldiers he wrote about, the black press, and his readers. This research is based primarily on dispatches that Tyler sent from the front and materials in the National Archives and in the Scott papers at the Soper Library of Morgan State University.

Newly accredited war correspondent Ralph Waldo Tyler sailed to France in the autumn of 1918. In his first dispatch from Europe, he said he was with

quite a galaxy of notable writers for the big dailies and magazines. Among them were celebrities like Will Irwin, Robert W Ritchie, Damon Runyon, H.J. Foreman, erstwhile managing editor of Collier's and, [George S.] Applegarth, usually known as "Appy" by the pencil pushers and readers of the Pittsburgh Press. Each 'and everyone of these notable writers-former newspaper reporters-seemed to have made an especial effort to make me forget-which I did-that my skin was several shades darker than theirs.1

Not only was his "skin several shades darker," but Tyler was the only "Colored American," as he described himself,2 to be accredited by the government as a correspondent in World War I. While a corps of white reporters had been filing stories about the doughboys of the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF) since 1917, they had largely ignored the contributions of the approximately 30,000 black combat troops and 160,000 Army laborers, who made up the segregated 92th and 93rd divisions.3 For its news from "over there," the black press had relied mostly on letters sent home by the soldiers or by their commanders.4

Tyler arrived in France less than two months before the Armistice. In the short time he was with the black troops, however, he was able to give readers of black newspapers reports of the activities of their sons and husbands on and off the battlefield. He also served as an observer of prejudice in the AEF for Emmett J. Scott, special assistant for race relations to secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Yet Tyler has been all but ignored by history. His name does not appear in the standard journalism history texts in the chronicles of the correspondents who covered war or in standard works on war correspondence.5 Neither is he mentioned in the major general histories of the war. Authors of works on the black press, if they refer to him at all, mention him only in passing, as do relatively recent studies that attempted to illuminate the efforts of blacks during the war.6 The only history of the war in which he and his reporting are mentioned at any length is Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War, by Scott,7 who, as will be seen, was instrumental in his appointment and used his reporting as a major source for the book.

Thus, this article recognizes the part that Tyler played in the history of American journalism as the only accredited black correspondent in World War I. It will discuss the events that led to his appointment and the special role he played as an accredited correspondent, and it will detail his reporting of the war and its aftermath. It also will shed another thin ray of light on the propaganda efforts that the Committee on Public Information targeted at the nation's black population.8

This study is based largely on the stories Tyler sent back from France during the four months that he wore the correspondent's uniform. It also relies heavily on the papers of Scott at the National Archives and in the Morris A. …

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