Teaching with Online Primary Sources: Documents from the National Archives: "I Still Have No Peace," an African American World War I Veteran's Letter to President Calvin Coolidge, October 16, 1923
Hussey, Michael, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods
Nearly five years after the end of World War I, African American veteran Timothy Percy Patterson wrote to President Calvin Coolidge stating, "I served Eighteen Months in the World's war. On the 11th day of Nov. 1918, on the Battlefield in France I heard much discussion about we being at peace. I beg to inform that I still have no peace." For Patterson, the Versailles Peace Treaty did not resolve the racial conflicts in the United States or stem the violence directed at African Americans. Patterson's letter continued that in 1923 he still found himself in a battle for "Constitutional rights and beg you assist me in getting them.'' (1)
In his April 2, 1917, address to Congress, President Woodrow Wilson had asked that body to declare war on Germany. He prominently cited German use of unrestricted submarine warfare against the United States and Germany's autocratic government as justifications for the proposed declaration. Said Wilson, "The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty." (2) Through the Selective Service Act of May 1917, millions of American men, including Patterson, were drafted into the armed forces of the United States. Those troops proved critical in the Allies' successful repelling of the German advance and ultimately procured a cease-fire from Berlin on November 11, 1918.
Patterson was one of nearly 400,000 African American men who served in the U.S. military during World War I. Approximately 200,000 of them were sent to Europe. While most were assigned to service units--and so spent their time unloading ships and transporting supplies--the 92nd and 93rd Divisions in particular saw active duty at the front. Impressively, 171 members of the 369th Infantry Regiment (of the 93rd Division), also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, received the French Croix de Guerre. (3) This medal was awarded by the French government to soldiers who displayed great bravery in battle. These troops had done their part to return the world to peace and provide President Wilson an opportunity to secure a world in which democracy might flourish.
These soldiers had entered the military from a civilian society that over the course of several decades had limited their civil rights. Restrictions on voting rights increased as the twentieth century progressed. Some states instituted poll taxes that disproportionately excluded and discriminated against poor blacks. Other states instituted "understanding tests" in which prospective voters were required to "correctly" interpret a section of the state or U.S. Constitution. Those tests further reduced the numbers of African Americans who were able to vote. The overall result was a dramatic decrease in black voters by the dawn of the twentieth century.
Numerous states also segregated African Americans into separate and unequal public facilities. In 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law requiring separate racially designated train cars for black and white riders was constitutional. By the outbreak of World War I so-called "Jim Crow" laws segregated the races in nearly every aspect of southern life, including restaurants, theaters, parks, and hospitals. (4)
Further, after fighting the German army in Europe, African-American veterans found themselves confronting the racial violence of lynching at home and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan after 1915. Between 1882 and 1968, 3,445 African Americans were reported lynched in the United States. (5) The 1890s, a particularly violent decade, witnessed an average of 187 lynchings each year, according to one estimate. (6) This was the culture in which Timothy Patterson and other African Americans found themselves after World War I. His letter makes clear that he had hoped to return to a more just America.
It took more than forty years after Patterson wrote his protest letter for the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. …