Where To Encamp The Negro Troops
[The Literary Review; September 20, 1917]
The outbreak of Negro soldiers at Houston in the latter part of August has caused a sharp division of opinion among some editorial observers on the encampment problem of the negro. To some Southern editors who protest against having negroes in cantonments in that section of the country, others reply that the South has always claimed ability to deal best with the negro, and now is the time for it to prove its claim. The rioting in Houston resulted in the death of seventeen persons and the wounding of a score or more, it will be recalled. Sooner or later the War Department will realize, remarks the Birmingham (Ala.) Ledger that negro troops should not be mobilized or trained in the South, and the sooner the better. The Columbia (S. C.) State is of the opinion that the training of numbers of negro troops in any Southern district would "cause complications, not only objectionable to the Southern people, but potential in the creation of delays and difficulties in the making of the National Army." Nothing should be allowed to interfere with this great task, says The State, which offers the following suggestion:
"About 10 per cent, of the population of the United States are negroes, and of these about 80 or 85 per cent, live in the South. The distribution of 50,000 or 100,000, or twice so many, negroes in camps at or near Northern cities would cause no inconvenience. New York State now has a regiment of National Guard troops composed of negroes, and their presence excites no resentment. The presence of a dozen regiments of negroes at the cantonment near Yaphank, on Long Island, would not excite a ripple of protest and the Southern negroes would not object to going to the North. Why not send them? Why risk the outbreak of unpleasantness in the South when it is not necessary and when the one great object is to raise, equip, and train an army with celerity?"
The Savannah Press confesses regret that negro troopers should be forced to train in camps where the weather is least suited to them, but it feels convinced that they "would get better training and discipline at the North—also the North might get a little discipline of the sort it needs—for the reason that they would not at the outset be under the impression that defiance of authority constitutes an assertion of the dignity which service for the nation gives them." The occurrence at Houston might have been foretold, observes the Savannah News, which believes that the Brownsville affair, during Mr. Roosevelt's Administration, indicated what might happen whenever negro troops, undeterred by the presence of white troops, were encamped at a Southern town. That they should be mobilized in the North is the view of this journal, and "perhaps at such a distance from the nearest community that the chances of trouble between them and the white inhabitants may be reduced to a minimum." Among other dailies that believe negro troops should not be trained in the South are the Houston Post, the San Antonio Light, the Vicksburg Herald, and the New Orleans Item and Times-Picayune.
In sharp disagreement with their view the Houston Chronicle observes:
"To say that the South is so unsafe for negro soldiers that mutinies are likely to occur if they are brought here is merely another way of saying that our military establishment is unable to enforce discipline and that our soldiers will only be orderly when the civil life suits their ideas and convenience, which is a fine notion to go to France with."
The Dallas News avers that "a good deal of our race trouble in the South is caused by unnecessary harshness on the part of police officers in their dealings with negroes," for in "too many instances police-officers act as if they were agents of vengeance rather than of justice." The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser is among those journals that believe now is the time for the South to make good the old and accepted claim that it knows best how to deal with the negro problem, and it adds:
"Our own people believe that the young negro men of the country should be drafted into the Army. They would think it most unjust if the white men were drafted and the negroes were left behind. The Government has very wisely adopted the policy of applying the Draft Law impartially to all races and to all creeds. If the negro is drafted and made to serve his country under arms, he is certainly entitled to fair and just treatment in the training-camps of the country. If he is worthy to carry a rifle in France, he is worthy to be trained in the use of that rifle in America."
The Arkansas Gazette maintains that the proper place to train the negro regiments of the National Army—that is, those regiments composed of Southern negroes—is in the South. If the War Department uses good judgment in the assignment of officers to handle negro recruits and if the officers use good judgment, there should be no trouble, for—
"In the first place, negroes from Southern cities and from Southern cotton-fields should not be sent North to suffer under the severe cold there. In the second place, if Southern men are put in charge of those negroes the work of disciplining them win be facilitated, for the Southern man knows the negro and the negro knows the Southern man. In spite of the rantings of writers who know nothing of the negro there is a bond of sympathy between the Southern white man and the Southern negro that is very strong and that can be used to good advantage."
"But mistakes should be avoided. For instance, it would be a grave error to send negro sergeants from negro regular regiments into the South to assist in the training of negro troops, and it would be a greater error to send negro commissioned officers. Also at no cantonment should there be a greater percentage of negro troops than one-fourth of the total of soldiers there."
The Atlanta Constitution believes that since the colored men are put in the service, the main question is to get out of the negro the best there is in him instead of the worst. In doing this "lies very largely the peace and happiness, primarily, of a tremendous element of the black people of the South; and, secondarily, the citizenry of the country as a whole, both South and North." There are certain facts to be kept in mind, according to The Constitution:
"First of these is the fact that the negro has a 'best side,' which was fully demonstrated by his unparalleled conduct during the Civil War. That war probably afforded the only instance in the history of the world when a race stood loyally and heroically back of the women and children while its masters were out fighting to keep it in slavery. The world's history does not recount a better display of loyalty on the part of any race or any people. Throughout the four years of the Civil War there was never an assault, nor an attack, nor a betrayal of the trust reposed in the negroes. On the other hand, they stood as sentinels and guards over the helpless families of their masters under arms."
"That is the 'best side' of the negro, which we should remember to-day.
"Another condition to be kept in view is the unfortunate trait of the negro's character that instinctively induces him to shield those of his race who commit crime. They not only shield criminals of their race, but take as race antagonism the dealings on the part of courts and law officers with admitted transgressors of the law.
"If occasionally a negro trooper gets infractious, transgresses the law, and falls into the hands of a policeman, it must not be made a race matter, because it will not be anything of the sort….
"We must all keep in mind, too, the dual obligation on the other side, which can be exprest in the simple statement that in dealing with the colored troops the white people must be fair and just."
"We believe that if this is imprest upon officers of the law, street-car conductors, and all others with whom the selected colored troops will be most frequently brought into contact, the likelihood of friction will be entirely removed."
"In other words, if negroes and white alike are imprest with the fact that we are going to demand and give fair treatment, we will have gone a long way toward solving what in other places has proved a mean problem."
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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By J. Fred MacDonald