Negroes under War Conditions

[The Outlook; June 26, 1918]

A transport lay at the dock in an American port. The decks swarmed with men in khaki. A passenger boat passed near her, and a passenger aboard saw that these men in khaki were Negroes. "Those men are going over to fight our battles," this passenger later remarked, in describing the sight, "and I can never again think of Negroes as I used to think."

Surely the Negroes of America are earning in France a hearing such as they have, not always had heretofore. What this means is indicated by the symbol of the Service Flag at Hampton Institute. On Commencement day that Service Flag had at least 263 stars, including two gold stars that symbolized those who had given their lives for their country. Of the senior class at Hampton, at least eighteen are now in the National service. Only a minority of the students at Hampton are Indians; the rest are Negroes. Such a record is one which makes it worth while to heed what a Negro youth, thoughtful and discriminating, says about his people. One of the graduating class (who received diplomas from the new principal, Mr. Gregg) is a Kentucky Negro, Walter Greene Miller, who has finished the four-year course in bricklaying and plastering. Some of his graduating address is worth quoting:

The Negro at heart loves the South—its activities, its sunshine, its climate. He is, however, without doubt, very much dissatisfied with the treatment that he receives. His family does not receive the proper protection of the law. He does not receive justice at the bar of public opinion. There are not the proper facilities for the education of his children. Wages have also been low. Nothing has hampered the progress of the Southern Negroes more than the inability of its great body of workers to make a decent living.

The natural tendency of men is to move to places where conditions are the most favorable. This is just what the Negroes to a large extent have done. It has been estimated that fully five hundred thousand Negroes have recently migrated from the South to the North. This unprecedented shift of Negro labor presents to the South a perplexing labor problem. This vital problem, in turn, has caused an awakening of the white South to a realization that it is losing its best and only supply of labor....

To those Negroes who have remained inducements are now made to have them stay.... More avenues of labor have been opened to Negroes; better treatment has been promised to Negro laborers; in many sections new school-houses are being erected for Negroes; and better working and living conditions are being provided.

Jobs are open not only to unskilled Negro laborers, but to skilled Negro workmen as well. Colored carpenters have been used in erecting buildings for the Southern cantonments.... In... scores of… places Negroes are working with white workmen without the slightest friction.

Colored women in a great many cases have been satisfactorily employed. The need of Negro cooks throughout the country is greater than the supply. Cognizance of this fact has been taken officially at Rock Hill, North Carolina, where a cooking school for young colored women is being conducted. There are also movements on foot to encourage the spirit of thrift among the home-makers. Last year, for example, a large number of colored women and girls in Louisiana canned large quantities of fruits and vegetables in their individual homes. At the Government Navy-Yard near Norfolk, Virginia, two colored women have been employed to direct important community work…

He war has been of immense and unexpected advantage to the Northern Negroes in that it has not only doubled wages but it has more than doubled the demand for their labor....

What effect will the present war conditions have on Negro wage-earners as a whole? We may safely say, I think, that the average Negro will prove worthy of the valuable opportunities which are coming to him. He will be found investing his surplus earnings in real estate. He will also seek to better his living conditions and educational facilities.

One thing that this war ought to teach us is the truth that is embodied in the facts which this colored student presents. It is that in this country we all go down or up together.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury