A hundred years ago, the United States entered World War I, beginning a profound legacy for the country's global economic and military standing in the twentieth century. On April 10, to mark the centennial, the PBS television program American Experience premieres The Great War, a three-part, six-hour documentary about a conflict that not only elevated America to a superpower but also cemented women's suffrage and spawned an embryonic civil rights movement.
"The war was an earthquake that shakes the world to its foundations," says producer Stephen Ives. "The changes it unleashed were so fundamental, so powerful, that there was no way to stop these forces from sweeping across the rest of the century."
The Great War explores the seismic shocks the war sent through American society and democracy through the personal narratives of activists, soldiers, nurses, policy makers, and scholars, covering a wide terrain while zooming in on the neglected histories of people of color, women, and immigrants.
Adriane Lentz-Smith is the series' featured expert on the unheralded role of African Americans in the war—and the lofty hopes and bitter betrayals they experienced before and after. Lentz-Smith, an associate professor of history at Duke, is the author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I. A newcomer to the national television audience, she joins the Pulitzer Prize winners who also serve as talking heads on the series.
"There could not have been a better person for sharing the complexity of the African-American experience during the war. Adriane brought the story alive," Ives says.
The African-American experience in World War I, and its cascading effects over the last hundred years, is a complicated, bitter story that many Americans are unaware of but which needs to be told, according to Lentz-Smith.
"If you're going to talk about 'a war for democracy,' then you cannot tell that story without talking about people of color of various stripes, immigrants, and women," she says. Lentz-Smith was first drawn to the experience of black soldiers in World War I as an undergrad, after encountering an article about them being court-martialed and lynched in 1919. She was largely unaware that African Americans had served in the war, and academic curiosity drove her to pursue the subject, first at Harvard, then as a doctoral student at Yale.
Her research uncovered a deep, influential history that remains hidden to most Americans. In the lead-up to the war, African-American activists saw military service as an opportunity to expand black citizenship and participation in American democracy. One black writer and wartime volunteer, Kathryn Johnson, wrote that the time would come when "conduct and not color will be a measure of manhood in the world."
"They saw this as a chance to show black valor, black dedication, and black heroism," Lentz-Smith says, "and they felt that display would earn them a fuller citizenship."
More than two hundred thousand African-American troops served abroad in World War I, but a deeply racist Army infrastructure limited most of them to menial labor. Still, some forty thousand saw combat, including the famed "Harlem Hellfighters," who were loaned to the French army. Unlike the U.S. Army, the French treated the Hellfighters with respect and honored their sacrifice with numerous awards for bravery.
But hopes of respectability and recognition were dashed back home. "Newly empowered black soldiers return from the war to find a depth of white resistance that makes the racism of the previous years seem like a walk in the park," says Lentz-Smith. As returning black soldiers began establishing civil rights organizations, a white backlash violently tried to maintain prewar standards of Jim Crow laws. During the "Red Summer" of 1919, white mobs reacted angrily to the new black assertiveness and attacked black neighborhoods in twenty-five cities, resulting in hundreds of deaths of both races. At least a dozen African-American soldiers in uniform were lynched during the violence, and the gains black veterans expected were lost in a spasm of suppression.
African-American activists had learned a bitter but valuable lesson. At the outbreak of World War II, black activists threatened President Roosevelt with a massive march on Washington unless he offered blacks access to defense jobs. Roosevelt, fearful of domestic wartime unrest, acquiesced, and activists intuited that organization and public pressure were the keys to progress, an insight that planted the seeds of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The Great War illustrates this story, and many others, with a wealth of contemporary footage, narration from personal accounts, and insights from writers and historians like Lentz-Smith. These stories aren't just rooted in the past; many contain relevance for today's political climate.
"If we don't understand the ways we've answered the questions of World War I in the past—who gets to be a citizen, what is our role in the world—then we are in bad shape for the present," Lentz-Smith says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Unjust Reward."Corrections: Two hundred thousand African-American troops served abroad in WWI; a greater number served in total. African-American activists pressured Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry, not the military.