The immigrant-filled cities were a focal point for the progressives’ mixed feelings about mass democracy. Between 1900 and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, more than thirteen million immigrants arrived in the United States, pouring into industrial cities largely from the rural regions of central and southern Europe. The new economy, in which six out of every ten industrial workers in 1914 was born abroad, was built on their cheap labor. Out of this new urban working class sprang not only new forms of poverty and overcrowded, tenement living but also powerful political machines, vigorous labor unions, and a socialist party that on the eve of the First World War rivaled any outside of Germany. Middle-class progressives sometimes took the urban masses as political allies. More often, however, the progressives saw the urban poor as objects of social concerns: as populations to be assimilated, improved, and protected from the employers, landlords, and political bosses who exploited them. Progressives inclined less toward talk of class justice than toward faith in a unitary public good; they thought less in terms of protected rights than of mediation and efficient management. They may have placed too much trust in experts, science, and the idea of the common good, but they brought into being the capacities of the modern state to push back against accidents of social fate and the excesses of private capital.
The International Stage
In all these state-building endeavors, early twentieth-century Americans moved in step with their counterparts in other industrial nations. That meant increasing the capacity of the nation to project its interests more forcefully abroad. In the Philippines, seized as a collateral asset in the war to free Cuba from Spanish rule in 1898, a commission led by William Howard Taft undertook to establish an American-style model of imperial governance. In Latin America, where American economic interests were about to eclipse Britain’s, US muscle flexing became routine. On a dozen different occasions between 1906 and 1929, US administrations dispatched troops to Mexico and the Caribbean to seize customs houses, reorganize finances, or attempt to control the outcome of an internal revolution.
The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 brought these state-building ambitions to a peak. Once the Wilson administration’s efforts to trade neutrally with all the belligerents collapsed in 1917, the administration entered the war determined to turn the nation into an efficient social machine for its promotion. Manpower was recruited through a wartime draft. Funds were raised through income tax levies and a public crusade for war bond sales, orchestrated with the best techniques that advertisers and psychological experts could muster. The nation’s railroads were temporarily nationalized to coordinate transportation; farmers were organized for war production; the War Industries Board undertook to coordinate industrial production; labor representation rights were granted to boost production and morale; and social workers and psychologists undertook to sort out and ease the transition into war for the almost three million new military recruits. It was only thirteen months between the arrival of US troops in France in October 1917 and the Armistice, but the war gave Americans a model for the efficient mobilization of resources in a common cause that early New Dealers, in particular, would remember.
The First World War gave Americans their first vision of a more effectively managed international order as well. The idea of reorganizing the world for the more efficient management of international disputes had many sources in this period. “Wilsonianism,” as it has come to be called, was not uniquely Woodrow Wilson’s idea, though he pushed more strongly for it than any of the other great power leaders who met at the peace conference at Versailles in 1919. When the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds necessary to ratify US entry in the new League of Nations, the defeat came as a major blow to progressives. But the application of the label “isolationist” to the period disguises the heightened role that the United States actually played in the organization of international affairs in the 1920s. The nation cooperated with the other great powers in the era’s arms-limitation agreements. American banker Charles Dawes won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for engineering a more sustainable international plan for German war reparations payments, soon further eased by the US government’s orchestration of new loans to German borrowers. Although the United States was not a participant in the new World Court created under the terms of the peace treaty, an American jurist served on its panel of eleven judges.
Domestically, the break between the prewar and postwar years seemed much sharper than on the international stage. The year 1919, in which the war economic machine ground suddenly to a halt, was one of the most volatile years of the twentieth century. Demobilization unloosed a wave of labor strikes unprecedented in their scale and the radical character of their demands. Workers tried to expand their wartime gains against employers who were determined to drive back unions and reassert management’s prerogatives of control. Fearful of revolution abroad and at home, the Justice Department rounded up and deported hundreds of aliens whom it judged, without trial, to be radical and disloyal. Violence erupted along race lines as white mobs in more than twenty cities poured into African American neighborhoods to attack homes and persons. A new Ku Klux Klan emerged in both the North and South with the goal of intimidating not only blacks but also Catholics, immigrants, and radicals. In the aftermath of 1919’s turmoil, Calvin Coolidge, a Republican presidential candidate committed to returning the nation to “normalcy,” swept the election in a landslide.
Still, many of the managerial ambitions of the earlier years survived into the “new era.” Coolidge was no friend of energetic government, but his commerce secretary and successor, the engineer Herbert Hoover, held much more ambitious ideas of the role of government in promoting business and public ends than he is generally credited with. The massive Hoover Dam public works project was a product of the Coolidge and Hoover administrations; the most important Depression-era agency for financial restabilization, the Reconstruction Finance Administration, began as a Hoover initiative. The drive to prohibit the production and sale of alcohol for consumption undertaken in 1919 and the shuttering of the borders to new European immigration in 1921 were driven in part by moral conservatives’ recoil against the mores of the urban, immigrant city. But there were progressives who saw in both measures the promise of a better-organized society, deliberately managing its population movements and curbing the wasteful effects of drunkenness on labor efficiency and on abused wives and children.
The changes that marked the 1900–1929 period were very unevenly spread across the nation’s regions and peoples. Southern leaders were not immune to progressive political ambitions. Southern farmers lobbied hard for federal credit systems to supplement private lenders in the cash-strapped South. They turned the system of federally supported agriculture extension agents into a far-flung network of scientific advice, crop marketing assistance, and lobbying help in Congress. But southern progressive reform had its limits. Efforts to enfranchise women, or effectively ban the employment of twelve- and thirteen-year-old children in the textile mills, or enact national anti-lynching legislation met with major resistance. Although there were islands of exception, the South was visibly poorer than the rest of country, much less urbanized, farther from the new consumer society being built elsewhere, and intractably committed to cotton, low-wage labor, and management of its own racial matters.
The most striking change in the South was the massive wartime exodus to the North of African Americans, breaking the ties that had bound most former slaves to agricultural poverty and tenancy since the end of the Civil War. Animosity toward African Americans did not change in the North in this period, where racial pseudo-science flourished in both elite and popular forms, but the labor shortages of the First World War shattered northern employers’ bans against African American workers, and the strenuous efforts of southern landlords to keep black labor from fleeing north were not enough to blunt the effects. Almost a half million African Americans fled between 1914 and 1920. Most were rural folk for whom the sharply defined housing ghettoes and racially segregated labor markets of the urban North still seemed a major step up from sharecropping and the codes of southern racial subordination. They were joined by aspiring poets, entrepreneurs, jazz musicians, and rights advocates who helped to make Chicago’s South Side and New York City’s Harlem magnets for a newly self-conscious, urban, and assertive black politics and culture. New racially segregated labor patterns changed the American Southwest as well, as expanding jobs in the farms, mines, and railroads drew hundreds of thousands of workers across the border with Mexico.
Women experienced the era’s changes in more complex ways than men. Northern middle-class women had played a defining role in advancing many of the progressive social reforms of the day. Even before they gained the vote, they had established themselves as important politics actors. Working out from woman-dominated social spaces in the settlement houses, women’s clubs and colleges, the social-gospel churches, and the social work professions, they undertook to demonstrate women’s higher moral sensibilities and their greater sense of responsibility for the larger “civic household.” The campaign for political equality for women both altered and undermined those premises. By the 1920s, the settlement-house worker was a far less visible presence in the culture than the bobbed-hair, flapper-clad “new woman”—more independent, more athletic, more eager to compete with men, and more drawn to men’s company.
These new women were both the objects and the subjects of the last major domains of society to be reorganized in this period, the industries of entertainment and consumption. Both grew dramatically between 1900 and 1929. It was one of the most important discoveries of the age that even pleasure could be engineered. Moviemakers like D. W. Griffith learned not simply to film a gripping story, but, through new techniques of scene cutting, to pace and manipulate the very emotions of their audiences. Psychology moved into advertisements as goods and pleasures were made to sell themselves by their brands and slogans. Music halls, chain-managed vaudeville, amusement parks, dance clubs, the glittering movie palaces of the 1910s and 1920s, and, finally, radio transformed entertainment in this period, particularly for urban Americans. By the 1920s they lived in a culture much more cosmopolitan—with its African American jazz and dance music, Yiddish comedy, and screen idols who showcased their foreignness—more sexualized, more commercial, and more deliberately organized than any before it.
Together with the new forms of pleasure, a new flood of goods poured out of the early twentieth-century economy as production emphases shifted to mass-marketed goods and household consumers. Canned foods, refrigerators and other electric appliances, factory-made shirtwaists, celluloid collars, and chemically made rayon, cigarettes and soft drinks, snap-shot cameras and phonograph records, together with hundreds of other consumer goods brought the reorganization of capital, production, and advertising into daily life. The most revolutionary of the era’s new goods was the automobile, no longer a toy of the elites but a democratic commodity, thanks in part to Henry Ford’s determination to make cars so efficiently and to pay his workers enough that even factory workers could own one. By 1929 there was one automobile for every five persons in the United States. Already the automobile’s effects on the patterns of suburban living, recreation, status, rural isolation, and even sex were being acutely sensed.
By the end of the era, to be outside the new world of mass-marketed goods—as millions of poor and rural Americans continued to be—was for the first time to be an outsider in one’s own nation. Almost no one in the fall of 1929 thought that the bounty might be at its end.
Daniel Rodgers , the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University, is the author of The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850–1920 (1978), winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize; Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics since Independence (1987); Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998); and Age of Fracture (2011).
DISCUSSION 3: Comment on the sources by the Vice Commission of Chicago, Irving D. Steinhardt, and Havelock Ellis. Follow the guidelines and instructions for Discussion Participation. Post original comments and replies to the Discussion Board on Canvas by the deadline shown on the Class Schedule.
● Vice Commission of Chicago, The Social Evil in Chicago: A Study of Existing Conditions with Recommendations, 1911.
The Commission’s investigator was, of course, unable to gain entrance into those circles of the very well-to-do, which are engaged in these practices, nor did he concern himself with the lowest stratum of society, which is the class most observable in our courts. Nor did he gain any information about the much more occasional cases among women, of which the Commission heard something from other sources. He most readily, however, became acquainted with whole groups and colonies of these men who are sex perverts, but who do not fall in the hands of the police on account of their practices, and who are not known in their true character to any extent by physicians because of the fact that their habits do not, as a rule, produce bodily disease. It is noteworthy that the details of information gained from a police officer, who was once detailed on this work, and from a young professional student, who himself, for a time, has been partially engaged in this practice, were completely substantiated by the Commission’s investigator.
It appears that in this community there is a large number of men . . . who mostly affect the carriage, mannerisms, and speech of women; who are fond of many articles ordinarily dear to the feminine heart; who are often people of a good deal of talent; who lean to the fantastic in dress and other modes of expression, and who have a definite cult with regard to sexual life. They preach the value of non-association with women from various standpoints and yet with one another have practices which are nauseous and repulsive. Many of them speak of themselves or each other with the adoption of feminine terms, and go by girls’ names or fantastic application of women’s titles. They have a vocabulary and signs of recognition of their own, which serve as an introduction into their own society. The cult has produced some literature, much of which is uncomprehensible to one who cannot read between the lines, and there is considerable distribution among them of pernicious photographs.
In one of the large music halls recently, a much applauded act was that of a man who by facial expression and bodily contortion represented sex perversion, a most disgusting performance. It was evidently not at all understood by many of the audience, but others wildly applauded. Then, one of the songs recently ruled off the stage by the police department was inoffensive to innocent ears, but was really written by a member of the cult, and replete with suggestiveness to those who understood the language of this group.
Some of these men impersonate women on the cheap vaudeville stage, in connection with disorderly saloons. Their disguise is so perfect, they are enabled to sit at tables with men between the acts, and solicit for drinks the same as prostitutes.
Two of these “female impersonators” . . . afterwards invited the men to rooms over the saloon for pervert practices.
● Irving D. Steinhardt, Ten Sex Talks to Girls, 14 Years and Older , 1914
Avoid girls who are too affectionate and demonstrative in their manner of talking and acting with you; who are inclined to admire your figure and breast development; who are inclined to be just a little too familiar in their actions toward you; who are inclined to be rather free and careless in the display of themselves in your presence; who press upon you too earnestly invitations to remain at their homes all night, and to occupy the same bed they do. When sleeping in the same bed with another girl, old or young, avoid “snuggling up” close together. Avoid the touching of sexual parts, including the breasts, and, in fact, I might say avoid contact of any parts of the body at all. Keep your night robe about you so that you are as well protected from outside contact as its size will permit, and let your conversation be of other topics than sexuality. Do not lie in each other’s arms when awake or falling asleep; and, after going to bed, if you are sleeping alone or with others, just bear in mind that beds are sleeping places. When you go to bed, go to sleep just as quickly as you can. If possible, avoid sleeping with anyone else. It is more healthful and sanitary to sleep in a separate bed . . . certain diseases, both those affecting the genital organs and others, are often conveyed through contaminated bed clothes, body contact, the breath, etc. You can see for yourselves, therefore, that separate beds are good for more reasons than one. . . .
Some girls are low enough to accept pay for bringing about the moral ruin of members of their sex; . . . they are to be found everywhere, in the smallest village as well as in the largest town. Girls who have become discontented with their lot are easily influenced by the sweet, honeyed lies of these vile creatures. Beware of strange women, as well as of strange men, who seek to shower favors and other things upon you for no apparent reason except that they are strangely attracted to you. If you do not, you will live to regret it. Thousands of your sex already have, and lie in nameless graves away from home, most likely in a pauper’s burying-ground, because they had become so degraded in name and fact as to be lost to “the old folks at home.”
● Havelock Ellis, Sexual Inversion, 1915
As regards the prevalence of homosexuality in the United States, I may quote from a well-informed American correspondent:—
“The great prevalence of sexual inversion in American cities is shown by the wide knowledge of its existence. Ninety-nine normal men out of a hundred have been accosted on the streets by inverts, or have among their acquaintances men whom they know to be sexually inverted. Everyone has seen inverts and knows what they are. The public attitude toward them is generally a negative one—indifference, amusement, contempt.
“The world of sexual inverts is, indeed, a large one in any American city, and it is a community distinctly organized—words, customs, traditions of its own; and every city has its numerous meeting-places: certain churches whereinverts congregate; certain cafes well known for the inverted character of their patrons; certain streets where, at night, every fifth man is an invert. The inverts have their own ‘clubs,’ with nightly meetings. These ‘clubs’ are, really, dance halls, attached to saloons, and presided over by the proprietor of the saloon, himself almost invariably an invert, as are all the waiters and musicians. The frequenters of these places are male sexual inverts (usually ranging from 17 to 30 years of age); sightseers find no difficulty in gaining entrance; truly, they are welcomed for the drinks they buy for the company—and other reasons. Singing and dancing turns by certain favorite performers are the features of these gatherings, With much gossip and drinking at the small tables ranged along the four walls of the room. The habitues of these places are, generally, inverts of the most pronounced type, i.e., the completely feminine in voice and manners, with the characteristic hip motion in their walk; though I have never seen any approach to feminine dress there, doubtless the desire for it is not wanting and only police regulations relegate it to other occasions and places. You will rightly infer that the police know of these places and endure their existence for a consideration; it is not unusual for the inquiring stranger to be directed there by a policeman.” . . .
It is notable that of recent years there has been a fashion for a red tie to be adopted by inverts as their badge. This is especially marked among the “fairies” (as a fellator is there termed ) in New York. “It is red,” writes an American correspondent, himself inverted, “that has become almost a synonym for sexual inversion, not only in the minds of inverts themselves, but in the popular mind. To wear a red necktie on the street is to invite remarks from newsboys and others—remarks that have the practices of inverts for their theme. A friend told me once that when a group of street-boys caught sight of the red necktie he was wearing they sucked their fingers in imitation of fellatio. Male prostitutes who walk the streets of Philadelphia and New York almost invariably wear red neckties. It is the badge of all their tribe. The rooms of many of my inverted friends have red as the prevailing color in decorations. Among my classmates, at the medical school, few ever had the courage to wear a red tie; those who did never repeated the experiment.”
ASSIGNMENT 4: Answer the questions outside of Canvas. Save your responses. Submit on Canvas before the deadline on the Class Schedule.
4a. In what sense was there a conflict between traditional roles for women and the effort to improve their status and conditions of life in the early-twentieth century? Following closely the Guidelines for Thesis Writing, write a thesis for an essay that could be written for this question, based on the Sources for 4a below.
4b. How did the problems and concerns of African Americans differ in World War I and the following peacetime of the 1920s? Following closely the Guidelines for Thesis Writing, write a thesis for an essay you might write for this question, based on the Sources for 4b below.
4c. Following closely the Guidelines on Evidence, write two points separate of evidence to support the thesis you wrote on African Americans in ‘b’ above, drawn from Sources for 4b. One point of evidence should deal with World War I and one with the 1920s.
Miriam Cohen, “Women and the Progressive Movement,” History Now (Winter 2012) The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 49 W. 45th Street, 6th Floor · NYC, NY 10036 (646) 366-9666 © 2009–2014 All Rights Reserved. [https://www.gilderlehrman.org/]
At the end of the nineteenth century, American politicians, journalists, professionals, and volunteers mobilized on behalf of reforms meant to deal with a variety of social problems associated with industrialization. Women activists, mainly from middling and prosperous social backgrounds, emphasized the special contribution that women could make in tackling these problems. With issues of public health and safety, child labor, and women’s work under dangerous conditions so prominent, who better than women to address them? Focusing on issues that appealed to women as wives and mothers, and promoting the notion that women were particularly good at addressing such concerns, the female activists practiced what women’s historians call maternalist politics. By emphasizing traditional traits, female social reformers between 1890 and World War I created new spaces for themselves in local and then national government even before they had the right to vote. They carved out new opportunities for paid labor in professions like social work and public health. Maternalists also stressed the special needs of poor women and children in order to build support for America’s early welfare state.
Regardless of sex, activists did not always value the same reforms, nor did they always agree on the nature of the problems, but as part of the progressive movement, their concerns shared some basic characteristics. Historian Daniel Rodgers argues that progressives drew on three “distinct clusters of ideas.” One was the deep distrust of growing corporate monopoly, the second involved the increasing conviction that in order to progress as a society, the commitment to individualism had to be tempered with an appreciation of our social bonds. Progressives also believed that modern techniques of social planning and efficiency would offer solutions to the social problems at hand. Their ideas did not add up to a coherent ideology, but, as Rodgers notes, “they tended to focus discontent on unregulated individual power.” As the nineteenth century closed, periodic economic downturns served as wake-up calls to the dangers of relying solely on the workings of the free market to ensure the general prosperity.
Concerns about social problems were not new for women. Since the antebellum era, middle-class white and black women engaged in various forms of civic activity related to the social and moral welfare of those less fortunate. Temperance, abolition, and moral reform activities dominated women’s politics before the Civil War. By the 1870s, women were broadening their influence, working in national organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), which helped single women in America’s cities. During the Progressive era, a moral-reform agenda motivated many women; such organizations as the WCTU, for example, intensified their activities on behalf of a national ban on alcohol and against prostitution.
But it was after 1890 that the issues surrounding social welfare took on their greatest urgency. The Panic of 1893, along with the increasing concerns about industrialization—the growing slums across American cities, the influx of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, the increase in labor strife—contributed to that sense of urgency.
Within a decade, vast networks of middle-class and wealthy women were energetically addressing how these social programs affected women and children. Encouraged by the national General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), local women’s clubs turned to learning about and then addressing the crises of the urbanizing society. Excluded by the GFWC, hundreds of African American women’s clubs affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) focused on family welfare among black Americans who were dealing with both poverty and racism. The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), dominated by prosperous German-Jewish women, sprang into action in the 1890s as well, to work with the newly arrived eastern European Jewish community. The National Congress of Mothers (later the Parent Teacher Association) emerged in 1897 to address the needs of the American family and the mother’s crucial role in fulfilling those needs. Activist women throughout the country, from Boston in the east, to Seattle in the west, and Memphis in the south, focused on improving public schools, especially in poor neighborhoods.
Responding to the problems associated with urban industrial life, American women reformers looked to their counterparts in Europe who were struggling with similar issues. One such initiative, which caught on with American women who visited England in the 1880s, was Toynbee Hall, a settlement house located in London’s poverty-stricken East End. The efforts of the men at Toynbee to reach across the class divide inspired Jane Addams, who founded Chicago’s Hull House in 1889, as well as a group of Smith College graduates who founded the College Settlement House in New York around the same time.
The settlement house movement soon took hold throughout the country. Located in urban, poor, often immigrant communities, the houses were residences for young middle-class and prosperous women, and some men, who wished not merely to minister to the poor and then go home, but to live among them, to be their neighbors, to participate with them in bettering their communities. Their poorer neighbors did not live in the settlement houses but spent time there, participating in various clubs and classes, including kindergarten and day nurseries for children. Settlement houses also sent volunteers out into the community. Truly pioneers in the area of public health, their visiting nurses taught hygiene and health care to poor immigrant households. Settlement house workers and other women reformers also campaigned for public milk stations in an effort to reduce infant mortality.
Most settlement houses identified themselves with Protestant Christianity, and indeed, in response, Catholic and Jewish activists founded their own institutions. However, both Lillian Wald, head of the famous Henry Street Settlement in New York, and Addams, among others, ran secular institutions.
Taking up residence in settlement houses attracted women who wished to carve out non-traditional lifestyles, where they could be among their close companions and devote themselves to what they saw as meaningful lives. By the mid-1890s, the core community of Hull House consisted of Jane Addams, the most celebrated female social reformer of her day; Florence Kelley, Illinois’s first State Factory Investigator, who would later move to New York to become the head of the National Consumers League (NCL); Dr. Alice Hamilton, America’s founder of industrial medicine; and Julia Lathrop, a pioneer in the field of child welfare who was to become the first woman to head a federal agency when she became director of the newly founded US Children’s Bureau in 1912. Historian Kathryn Sklar writes of the Hull House community that the women “found what others could not provide for them, dear friendship, livelihood, contact with the real world, and a chance to change it.” Only a small group of women actually took up residence at the settlement house, but many women in cities and towns throughout the country worked as volunteers for these establishments, including the young Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked at the Riverside Settlement in New York City before her marriage to Franklin.
Beyond the settlement houses, women worked hard on a variety of social initiatives. One of the most important involved efforts to improve working conditions in America’s factories, particularly in those trades, such as garments and textiles, that employed so much immigrant labor at low wages. The National Consumers League and the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), both dominated by women, launched campaigns across the country, calling on state governments to institute protective labor laws that would end very long work hours for women and the labor of children and young adolescents. They also demanded that state government provide factory inspectors to see that the new laws were enforced.
Some progressive women believed that rather than campaigning on behalf of poor women, they could best offer help by encouraging the efforts of working women to empower themselves through collective bargaining. Unionizing women was an especially difficult challenge because the larger society viewed them as marginal workers, rather than critical breadwinners who needed to support themselves or help support their families. The National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), with branches in a number of cities, was an organization of wealthy and working-class women who came together to aid the efforts of women who were already working with their male co-workers in the garment and textile unions.
While many did philanthropic work on behalf of poor families, in this new era women also called for state participation in granting financial relief to the needy. To help one group of poor families—single mothers forced to raise children without male incomes—they campaigned on behalf of state aid to widowed mothers. Given the high male mortality due to work accidents and poor job conditions, the growing numbers of young, very poor widowed mothers was a major social problem. By the early twentieth century, many family welfare experts were convinced that if at all possible, poor children of widowed mothers should be kept at home, rather than placed in orphanages, which had been the custom in the nineteenth century. In the second decade of the twentieth century, mothers’ pension leagues campaigning across the country were remarkably successful. By 1920, the vast majority of states had enacted some sort of mothers’ pension program. These state-funded initiatives were the precursors to the Aid to Dependent Children Program, which became federal law during the New Deal as part of the Social Security Act.
Mothers’ pension campaigns exemplify how advocates for expanding social welfare appealed to the maternalist sensibilities of middle-class audiences. In writing in 1916 about the activities of their Propaganda Committee, Sophia Loeb of the Allegheny County Mothers’ Pension League, campaigning for mothers’ pensions in the Greater Pittsburgh area, reported on the first-ever public celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States, noting that the gathering of 1,100 “was unique in the fact that not only was tribute paid to Motherhood in speech and flower, but Mother was honored in a more practical way by trying to assist the mothers less fortunate, in their struggle to help her children under her own roof.”
Reforming the juvenile justice system was another way to limit the institutionalization of poor children. Prior to the Progressive era, children arrested for a whole host of crimes, including truancy and shoplifting, could end up tried as adults and placed in adult jails. Yet, increasingly, middle-class and prosperous Americans were adopting the view that children, including poor children, should be viewed not as miniature adults, but as human beings who needed proper teaching and nurturing in order to grow into responsible adults; such nurturing would preferably be done by parents, not outside institutions. In 1899, Hull House reformers such as Julia Lathrop and Louise DeKoven Bowen persuaded Illinois lawmakers to institute the first juvenile court; unlike the adult courts, it could exercise greater flexibility in sentencing and it could concentrate on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Soon after, such courts were instituted in cities across the United States.
Whether campaigning for mothers’ pensions, protective labor legislation, public health programs, or the establishment of the juvenile justice system, progressive maternalists stressed that these initiatives would help women become better mothers. They advocated specific programs because of their traditional convictions regarding gender roles and family life, with men as successful breadwinners and women proper domestic caretakers, but their approach was also strategic. Women knew that their participation in the political arena flew in the face of conventional norms; concentrating on issues already associated with women’s traditional roles lessened the impact of their challenge.
Some women activists, however, did challenge aspects of traditional gender norms. The writer and renowned lecturer Charlotte Perkins Gilman also believed in women’s special attributes, but she questioned the very organization of society based on the private household, arguing that both housekeeping and childcare could be done better in collective settings, which would free women to pursue other occupations. Other activists, unlike the social progressives, promoted a new embrace of women’s sexuality, some advocating free love. Margaret Sanger campaigned for access to safe, inexpensive contraception in order that women could assert more control over their health and the way they chose to mother.
Because Gilman, Sanger, and the free-love advocates promoted women’s autonomy, we often associate them with the emerging feminist movement that was to become so important later in the twentieth century. But scholars have recently argued that the progressive social reformers can also be named feminists, specifically social feminists, because they were committed to increasing women’s social and political rights even as they used arguments about women’s special needs and attributes to achieve their goals. Thus, the progressive women promoted women’s suffrage; many worked vigorously on behalf of the cause and belonged to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the dominant pro-suffrage organization of the day. In arguing for women’s suffrage in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1910, Jane Addams appealed to her middle-class readers by pointing out that women in modern society no longer performed the functions of producing for their families all the goods that they would consume at home; if they cared about the health and safety of their own families—the food they ate, the water they drank, the diseases they might catch—they ought to care about the conditions all around them, and they ought to want the ability to vote on these public concerns. Moreover, social feminists did not always emphasize women’s special role as mothers when arguing on behalf of the vote. As pragmatic activists, they adopted more than one strategy to achieve reforms. Like men, their politics were multifaceted and were shaped by a variety of concerns. To achieve their ends, they worked with various reform coalitions and they often tailored their rhetoric to strengthen those coalitions.
And though they believed that women had a special affinity for social welfare work, progressive women did not rely on the notion that women had a natural sympathy for the poor. Tackling the social problems of the day, they believed, required hardheaded research. “A colony of efficient and intelligent women,” Florence Kelley wrote of her colleagues at Hull House in 1892. Three years later, the women of Hull House published the famous detailed survey of social conditions in Chicago, Hull House Maps and Papers, now considered a major work in the early history of American social science. Women conducted detailed social investigations as part of their campaigns on behalf of protective labor legislation. And at the Children’s Bureau, Lathrop campaigned on behalf of public health initiatives for infant and maternal care and against child labor by first launching major investigations of the conditions that she wanted government to address.
A conviction that knowledge about social conditions would lead to social change, implemented through modern “scientific” methods, was a hallmark of progressive social reformers, both male and female, but for women researchers, the determination to study social problems opened up new opportunities to forge a place in the emerging social sciences. Women often founded and developed the first graduate schools of social work. In turn, the professionalization of social work provided women with a number of professional opportunities, not only as teachers in graduate training programs. As the new fields of child and family welfare were taken up by local, state, and ultimately, the national government, social feminists argued successfully that women ought to perform these jobs. In 1919, the Children’s Bureau under Lathrop employed 150 women and only 19 men. Women also took jobs in the US Women’s Bureau, founded in the aftermath of World War I to attend to the needs of working women. In 1914, Congress funded educational extension programs in rural areas, which included home economics. Working for the United States Department of Agriculture as home economists, women provided information on new household technologies and worked to spread the new home economics education out to the countryside.
In rendering “professional” advice to poor mothers, advocating the use of modern housekeeping and nutritional and medical practices, and promoting the supervision of families in the juvenile court, the progressive women surely exhibited class biases. Progressive reformers were often too sure they knew what was best for the poor. But more so than most reformers of the day, women like Lathrop, Kelley, and Adams had an appreciation for the real problems faced by the poor; Lathrop, specifically, had a special respect for the hard work of mothers, especially poor mothers. Convinced that poverty and inadequate services, not character defects, were responsible for disease, malnutrition, delinquency, and premature death among poor families, Lathrop and her staff at the Children’s Bureau worked tirelessly to prove it to others.
The genuine efforts of social feminists to reach across class lines were born of their belief that shared experiences among women, and shared ideals, could erase class differences. Yet immigrant women, living with families that were often struggling just to make ends meet, often had priorities that differed from the more prosperous women seeking to help them. As a labor activist from the working class, Leonora O’Reilly worked with elite women in a variety of reform organizations, formed close friendships with wealthy women, and was a founder of the New York WTUL, yet at various times she complained about upper-class condescension. The class divide existed among women within minority groups as well. Newly arrived Russian Jewish women often resented what they perceived to be condescension on the part of the women of the NCJW, even though the wealthier women did provide critical help for immigrants. Similarly, the commitment to uplift on the part of black women in the NACW meant providing essential social services to their poorer sisters, but the more prosperous women often had difficulty understanding and appreciating some of the concerns of poorer women.
If class prevented women from uniting, reaching across racial lines was even more problematic. While white women could be patronizing when it came to immigrants, their attitude toward African American mothers could be even more troubling, and steeped in assumptions about the superiority of all European cultures. Many progressive women assumed that European immigrants could learn modern values regarding good mothers, but most believed black Americans could not. Since settlement houses were largely segregated, black women could not and did not rely on white settlement houses, founding their own, such as the Frederick Douglass Center in Chicago, developed by the activists Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fannie Williams, and white reformer Celia Parker Woolley. In 1897, Victoria Earl Matthews established New York City’s White Rose Mission, the first black settlement run exclusively by African Americans. Black women, like their white counterparts, also pushed women’s suffrage, only to find that the suffrage organizations such as NAWSA were at best indifferent regarding the issue of black access to suffrage and at worst, hostile.
Most white reformers were limited by the prejudices of their day, but some of the most prominent stood out for their broader vision of equal rights. Florence Kelley and Jane Addams were strong supporters of African American suffrage; although they both had been active members of NAWSA, they publicly protested the organization’s endorsement of a states’ rights position on the question of whether or not black Americans should be given equal access to the ballot box. Kelley, Adams, and Lathrop were early and active members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The decade that followed World War I saw the demobilization of most progressive initiatives. Efforts to enhance government responsibility for social welfare took a back seat to nativist campaigns and moves to decrease the power of trade unions while increasing the ability of American corporations to operate unimpeded by government regulations. By the middle of the 1920s most of the progressive women’s organizations and their members were facing well-publicized accusations that they were part of a vast radical conspiracy that was determined to bring a communist government to the United States, just as the Bolsheviks had recently done in Russia.
Yet the achievements of the earlier decades had long-term effects that outlasted the postwar backlash. A younger generation of women remained employed in government agencies such as the Children’s Bureau and the Women’s Bureau. In 1933, three years into America’s greatest economic depression, the issues of social welfare moved front and center on the national agenda. When Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency that March, progressive women who had actively supported his candidacy and worked hard to get out the vote were in a position to demand they be given even greater roles in the federal government. The appointment of Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, the first woman to head a federal cabinet department, was evidence of their political power. A former head of the New York Consumers League, former industrial commissioner for New York State, and former state labor commissioner for New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, Perkins, and the progressive women around her and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, would now work successfully to implement national legislation on child labor, income supports for needy Americans, and a whole host of issues that had long been at the heart of their political agenda.
 See Molly Ladd-Taylor, Mother Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1933 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
 Daniel Rodgers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10, no. 4 (December 1982), 123.
 Maureen A. Flanagan, America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890–1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 46.
 Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2011), 257.
 Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830–1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 186.
 “Report of the Propaganda Committee,” Report of the Mothers’ Pension League of Allegheny County, 1915–1916 (Pittsburgh, PA), n.p.
 Maureen A. Flanagan, America Reformed, 45–46; Michael Willrich, City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
 “Why Women Should Vote,” Ladies’ Home Journal 27 (January 1910), 1–22.
 Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work, 194.
 Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion, 51.
 Woloch, Women and the American Experience, 289.
 Lara Vapnek, Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence, 1865–1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 75.
 Cheryl D. Hicks, Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890–1925 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 100.
Miriam Cohen is the Evalyn Clark Professor of History at Vassar and author of Workshop to Office: Two Generations of Italian Women in New York City (1993). She is the author of numerous articles on the history of American social welfare and is currently working on a biography of Julia Lathrop, forthcoming from Westview Press.
● Jane Addams, speech, 1908.
WE have been accustomed for many generations to think of woman’s place as being entirely within the walls of her own household, and it is indeed impossible to imagine the time when her duty there shall be ended or to forecast any social change which shall ever release her from that paramount obligation. There is no doubt, however, that many women to-day are failing properly to discharge their duties to their own families and households simply because they fail to see that as society grows more complicated it is necessary that woman shall extend her sense of responsibility to many things outside of her own home, if only in order to preserve the home in its entirety.
One could illustrate in many ways. A woman’s simplest duty, one would say, is to keep her house clean and wholesome and to feed her children properly. Yet, if she lives in a tenement house, as so many of my neighbors do, she can not fulfill these simple obligations by her own efforts because she is utterly dependent upon the city administration for the conditions which render decent living possible. Her basement will not be dry, her stairways will not be fireproof, her house will not be provided with sufficient windows to give her light and air, nor will it be equipped with sanitary plumbing unless the Public Works Department shall send inspectors who constantly insist that these elementary decencies be provided. These same women who now live in tenements, when they lived in the country, swept their own dooryards and either fed the refuse of the table to a flock of chickens or allowed it innocently to decay in the open air and sunshine; now, however, if the street is not cleaned by the city authorities, no amount of private sweeping will keep the tenant free from grime; if the garbage is not properly collected and destroyed, she may see her children sicken and die of diseases from which she alone is powerless to shield them, although her tenderness and devotion are unbounded; she can not even secure clean milk for her children, she can not provide them with fruit which is untainted, unless the milk has been properly taken care of by the City Health Department, and the decayed fruit, which is so often placed upon sale in the tenement districts, shall have been promptly destroyed in the interest of public health. In short, if woman would keep on with her old business of caring for her house and rearing her children, she will have to have some conscience in regard to public affairs lying quite outside of her immediate household. The individual conscience and devotion are no longer effective. In the tenement quarters of Chicago, I am sorry to say that last spring we had a spreading contagion of scarlet fever just at the time that the school nurses had been discontinued, because it was supposed that they were no longer necessary. If the women who sent their children to these schools had been sufficiently public-spirited they would have insisted that the schools be supplied with nurses in order that their own children might be protected from contagion. So I could go on with a dozen other illustrations. Women are pushed outside of the home in order that they may preserve the home. If they would effectively continue their old avocations, they must take part in the movements looking toward social amelioration.
On the other hand, this contention may be equally well illustrated by women who take no part in public affairs in order that they may give themselves exclusively to their own families, sometimes going so far as to despise their neighbors and their ways, and even to take a certain pride in being separate from them. Our own neighborhood was at one time suffering from a typhoid epidemic. Although the Nineteenth Ward had but one thirty-sixth of the population of Chicago, it had one-sixth of all the deaths in the city occurring from typhoid. A careful investigation was made by which we were able to establish a very close connection between the typhoid and a mode of plumbing which made it most probable that the infection had been carried by flies. Among the people who had been exposed to the infection was a widow who had lived in the ward for a number of years, in a comfortable little house which she owned. Although the Italian immigrants were closing in all around her, she was not willing to sell her property and to move away until she had finished the education of her children, because she considered that her paramount duty. In the meantime she held herself quite aloof from her Italian neighbors and their affairs. Her two daughters were sent to an Eastern college; one had graduated, the other had still two years before she took her degree, when they came home to the spotless little house and to their self-sacrificing mother for the summer’s holiday. They both fell ill, not because their own home was not clean, not because their mother was not devoted, but because next door to them and also in the rear were wretched tenements and because the mother’s utmost efforts could not keep the infection out of her own house. One daughter died, and one recovered, but was an invalid for two years following. This, is, perhaps, a fair illustration of the futility of the individual conscience when woman insists upon isolating her family from the rest of the community and its interests. The result is sure to be a pitiful failure.
In the process of socialization of their affairs, women might have received many suggestions from the changes in the organization of industry which have been going on for the last century. Ever since steam power has been applied to the processes of spinning and weaving, woman’s old traditional work has been slowly but inevitably slipping out of the household into the factory. The clothing is not only spun and woven but largely sewed by machinery; the household linen, the preparation of grains, the butter and cheese have also passed into the factory, and, necessarily, a certain number of women have been obliged to follow their work there, although it is doubtful, in spite of the large number of factory girls, whether women now are doing as large a proportion of the world’s work as they used to do. If we contemplate the many thousands of them who enter industry and who are working in factories and shops, we at once recognize the great necessity there is that older women should feel interested in the conditions of industry. According to the census reports, there are in the United States more than five million self-supporting women. Most of them are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, so that when we say working-women we really mean working-girls. It is the first time in history that such numbers of young girls have been permitted to walk unattended on city streets and to work under alien roofs. The very fact that these girls are not going to remain in industry permanently makes it more important that some one should see to it that they shall not be incapacitated for their future family life because they work for exhausting hours and under unsanitary conditions. One would imagine that as our grandmothers guarded the health and morals of the young women who spun and wove and sewed in their house-hold, so the women of to-day would feel equally responsible for the young girls who are doing the same work under changed conditions. This would be true if women’s sense of obligation had modified and enlarged as the social conditions changed, so that she might naturally and almost imperceptibly have inaugurated the movements for social amelioration in the line of factory legislation and shop sanitation. That she has not done so is doubtless due to the fact that her conscience is slow to recognize any obligation outside of her own family circle and because she was so absorbed in her own affairs that she failed to see what the conditions outside actually were. As one industry after another has slipped from the household; as the education of her children has been more and more transferred to the school, so that now children of four years old begin to go to the kindergarten the woman has been left in a household of constantly narrowing interests.
Possibly the first step towards restoration is publicity as to industrial affairs, for we are all able to see only those things to which we bring the “informing mind.” Perhaps you will permit me to illustrate from a group of home-keeping women who became interested in the problem of child labor. I was at one time a member of the Industrial Committee of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which is, as you know, an association of women’s clubs from all parts of the United States. We were very much interested in finding out how much child labor prevailed in the various States in which no legislation had been passed for the protection of children. We sent out questionnaires to all the women’s clubs, and among others we received a very interesting reply from a woman’s club in Florida. We had asked that the club members count all of the children under fourteen who were at work in the factories and mills in the club vicinities. The Florida women sent back the reply that they had found three thousand children in the sugar factories, and they added that they were very sorry that we had not asked them about child labor earlier, because their Legislature would not convene for two years and there would be no chance until then to secure protective legislation. They evidently thought that it was very remiss on the part of the committee that they had not earlier called their attention to child labor conditions. The whole incident is a good illustration of the point we would make. These women had lived in the same place for years. The children had doubtless gone to work back and forth right under their windows, but they had never looked, in order to count them and did not even know they were there. The Industrial Committee sent out a questionnaire which said, in effect, “Please look out of your windows and count the working-children.” The club women suddenly waked up and bestirred themselves to protect the children they had thus discovered. Something of that sort goes on in every community. We see those things to which our attention has been drawn, we feel responsibility for those things which are brought to us as matters of responsibility. In what direction, then, should women at the present moment look towards a more effective amelioration for the many social ills which are all about us?
If they follow only the lines of their traditional activities, there are certainly three primary duties which we would all admit belong to even the most conservative women and which no one woman or group of women can adequately discharge, unless they join the more general movements looking toward social amelioration.
The first of these is a responsibility for the members of her own household, that they may be properly fed and clothed and surrounded by hygienic conditions.
The second is responsibility for the education of children, that they may be provided with good schools, or kept free from vicious influences on the streets, and as a natural result of this concern, that when they first go to work that they shall be protected from dangerous machinery and from exhausting hours.
The third is responsibility for the social standards of the community, implying some comprehension of the difficulties and perplexities of the newly arrived immigrant, and adequate provision for the cultivation of music and other art sources which the community may contain.
We have already touched upon the first line of obligation and the difficulty of securing pure food without the help of pure food laws on the part of State and federal authorities and the impossibility of keeping the tenement family in sanitary surroundings without the constant regulation on the part of city officials. If the public authorities are indifferent to wretched conditions, as they often are, the only effective way to secure their reform is by a concerted effort on the part of the women who are responsible for the households. Perhaps you will permit me to illustrate from the Hull House Woman’s Club: One summer, fifteen years ago, we discovered the death rate in our ward for children under five years of age was far above the average, rating second highest of any ward in town. An investigation disclosed that, among other things, the refuse was not properly collected. The woman’s club divided the ward into sections, and three times every week certain women went through each section in order to find out what could be done to make the territory clean. Of course it is not very pleasant to go up and down the alleys and get into trouble with people about garbage conditions; it takes a good deal of moral vigor and civic determination to do it effectively. Yet the members of the club did this day after day until they were able to gather sufficient material to dismiss three inspectors from office and finally to secure the appointment of a competent inspector. When the ward became cleaner, when the death rate fell month by month, and each health bulletin was read in the Woman’s Club, all the members listened with breathless interest. I shall never forget the day, three years later, when the club broke into applause because the death rate of our ward had fallen to the average. They felt that they had been responsible in securing this result, that the neighborhood had been brought into a reasonable condition through their initiative and concerted effort. Of course, the household of each woman profited by the result, but it could not have been secured through the unaided effort of any one household. One might use, by way of illustration, the impossibility of knowing the sanitary conditions under which clothing is produced, unless women join together into an association like the Consumers’ League, which supports officers whose business it is to inform the members of the league as to garments which are made in sweatshops and to indicate by a label those which are produced under sanitary conditions. Country doctors testify as to the outbreak of scarlet fever in remote neighborhoods each autumn, after the children have begun to wear the winter cloaks and overcoats which have been sent from infected city sweatshops. That their mothers mend their stockings and guard them from “taking cold” is not a sufficient protection when the tailoring of the family is done in a distant city under conditions which the mother can not possibly control. Sweatshop legislation and the organization of consumers’ leagues are the most obvious lines of amelioration of those glaring social evils which directly affect family life.
The duty of the mother towards schools which her children attend is so obvious that it is not necessary to dwell upon it, but even this simple obligation can not be effectively carried out without some form of social organization, as the mothers’ school clubs and mothers’ congresses testify. But women are also beginning to realize that children need attention outside of school hours; that much of the petty vice in cities is merely the love of pleasure one wrong, the over-restrained boy or girl seeking improper recreation and excitement. In Chicago a map has recently been made demonstrating that juvenile crime is decreasing in the territory surrounding the finely equipped playgrounds and athletic fields which the South Park Board three years ago placed in thirteen small parks. We know in Chicago, from ten years’ experience in a juvenile court, that many boys are arrested from sheer excess of animal spirits, because they do not know what to do with themselves after school. The most daring thing the leader of a gang of boys can do is to break into an empty house, steal the plumbing fixtures and sell them for money with which to treat the gang. Of course that sort of thing gets a boy into very serious trouble, and is almost sure to land him in the reform school. It is obvious that a little collective study of the needs of the boys, a sympathetic understanding of the conditions under which they go astray, might save hundreds of them. Women traditionally have had an opportunity to observe the plays of children and the needs of growing boys, and yet they have done singularly little in this vexed problem of juvenile delinquency until they helped to inaugurate the juvenile court movement a dozen years ago; since then they have done valiant service, and they are at last trying to minimize some of the dangers of city life which boys and girls encounter; they are beginning to see the relation between public recreation and social morality. The women of Chicago are studying the effect of these recreational centers provided by the South Park Committee upon the social life of the older people who use them. One thing they have done is enormously to decrease the patronage of the neighboring saloons. Before we had these park houses, the saloon hall was hired for weddings and christenings, or any sort of an event which in the foreign mind is associated with general feasting, because the only places for hire were the public halls attached to the saloons. As you know, the saloon hall is rented free, with the understanding that a certain amount of money be paid across the bar; that is, the rent must be made up in other ways. The park hall, of course, is under no such temptation and, therefore, drinking has almost ceased at the parties held in the parks. If a man must go two or three blocks to get an alcoholic drink, and can step down-stairs to secure other refreshments, it goes without saying that in most cases he [end page 52] does the latter. The park halls close promptly at eleven o’clock. The city is, therefore, approaching the temperance problem from the point of view of substitution, which appears to some of us more reasonable than the solely restrictive method. Many of the larger movements towards social amelioration in which women are active have taken their rise from the interest the women felt in the affairs of the juvenile court, and yet this does not mean that collective effort minimizes individual concern. On the other hand, we often see a woman stirred to individual effort only after she has been brought into contact with the general movement. I recall a woman in the Hull House neighborhood who, although she had a large family of her own, took charge every evening of a boy whose mother scrubbed offices down-town every day from five o’clock in the afternoon until eleven at night. This kindly woman gave the boy his supper with her own children, saw that he got into no difficulty during the evening, and allowed him to sleep on the lounge in her sitting-room until his mother came by in the evening and took him home. After she had been doing this for about six months, I spoke to her about it one day and congratulated her on her success with the boy, who had formerly been a ward of the juvenile court. She replied that she had undertaken to help the boy because the juvenile court officer had spoken to her about him and had said that he thought she might be willing to help because he had observed her interest in juvenile court matters. Although the boy’s mother was a neighbor of hers, she had not apparently seen her obligation to the lad until it had been brought home to her in this somewhat remote way. It is another illustration of our inability to see the duty “next to hand” until we have become alert through our knowledge of conditions in connection with the larger duties. We would all agree that social amelioration must come about through the efforts of many people who are moved thereto by the compunction and stirring of the individual conscience, but we are only beginning to understand that the individual conscience will respond to the special challenge and will heed the call largely in proportion as the individual is able to see the social conditions and intelligently to understand the larger need. Therefore, careful investigation and mutual discussion is perhaps the first step in securing the legal enactment and civic amelioration of obvious social ills.
The third line of effort which every community needs to have carried on if it would obtain a social life in any real sense, I may perhaps illustrate from experiments at Hull House, not because they have been especially successful, but because an attempt has there been made to develop the social resources of an immigrant community.
If an historian, one hundred years from now, should write the social history of America, he would probably say that one of the marked characteristics of our time was the arrival of immigrants at the rate of a million a year and the fact that the American people had little social connection with them. If the historian a hundred years hence used the same phrases which the psychologists now use perhaps they will get over them by that time he would say that our minds seem to be “inhibited” by certain mental concepts which apparently prevented us from forming social relations with immigrants. What are these mental concepts, this state of mind which keeps us apart from the immigrant populations? The difference in language, in religion, in history and tradition always makes social intercourse difficult, and yet every year people go to Europe, for the very purpose of overcoming that difference and of seeing the life of other nations. They discover that people may differ in language and education and still possess similar interests. We would say that a person who went to Europe and returned without that point of view had made rather a failure of his trip. In the midst of American cities there are various colonies of immigrants who represent European life and conditions, and that we who stay at home know so little about them is only because we do not make the adequate effort. We have in the neighborhood of Hull House a colony of about five thousand Greeks, who once produced in the Hull House theater the classic play of “Ajax,” written by Sophocles. The Greeks were very much surprised when the professors came from the various universities in order to follow the play in the Greek text from books which they brought with them. The Greeks were surprised, because they did not know there were so many people in Chicago who cared for ancient Greece. The professors in turn were astonished to know that the modern Greeks were able to give such a charming interpretation of Sophocles. It was a mutual revelation on both sides. On one side the Greeks felt more nearly a part of America, and on the other side the professors felt that perhaps the traditions had not been so wholly broken in the case of Greece as they had been led to believe. It would have been difficult for the Greeks to have made for themselves all the preliminary arrangements for this play; they needed some people to act as ambassador, as it were, and yet they themselves possessed this tradition, the historic background, this beauty of classic form, which our American cities so sadly need and which they were able to supply.
We may illustrate from Italy, if you please, the very word which charms us so completely when we hear it on the other side of the Atlantic, and yet it means so little to us in our own country. These colonies of Italians might yield to our American life something very valuable if their resources were intelligently studied and developed. They have all sorts of artistic susceptibility, and even trained craftsmanship, which is never recovered for use here. I tell the story sometimes of an Italian who was threatened with arrest by his landlord because he had ornamented the doorpost of his tenement with a piece of beautiful wood carving. The Italian was very much astonished at this result of his attempt to make his home more beautiful. He could not understand why his landlord did not like it; he said that he had carved a reredos in a church in Naples, which Americans came to look at and which they thought was very beautiful; the man was naturally bewildered by the contrast between the appreciation of his work in Naples and Chicago. And yet we need nothing more in America than that same tendency to make beautiful the surroundings of our common life. The man’s skill was a very precious thing, and ought to have been conserved and utilized in our American life. The Italians in our neighborhood occasionally agitate for the erection of a public wash-house. They do not like to wash in their own tenements; they have never seen a washing tub until they came to America, and find it very difficult to use it in the restricted space of their little kitchens and to hang the clothes within the house to dry. They say that in Italy washing clothes is a pleasant task. In the villages the women all go to the stream together; in the towns, to the public wash-house, and washing, instead of being lonely and disagreeable, is made pleasant by cheerful conversation. It is asking a great deal of these women to change suddenly all their habits of living, and their contention that the tenement house kitchen is too small for laundry work is well taken. If women in Chicago knew the needs of the Italian colony and were conversant with their living in Italy, they, too, would agitate for the erection of public wash-houses for the use of Italian women. Anything that would bring cleanliness and fresh clothing into the Italian households would be a very sensible and hygienic measure. It is, perhaps, asking a great deal that the members of the city council should understand this, but surely a comprehension of the needs of these women and efforts towards ameliorating their lot might be regarded as a matter of conscientious duty on the part of American women.
One constantly sees also, in the Italian colony, that sad break between the customs of the older people and their children, who, because they have learned English and certain American ways, come to be half ashamed of their parents. It does not make for good Americans that the children should thus cut themselves away from the European past. If the reverse could be brought about; if the children, by some understanding of the past, could assist their parents in making the transition to American habits and customs, it would be most valuable from both points of view. An Italian girl who has gone to the public school and has had lessons in cooking and the household arts, will help her mother much more and connect the entire family with American foods and household habits more easily, if she understands her mother’s Italian experiences. That the mother has never baked bread in Italy only mixed it in her own house, and then taken it out to the village oven makes it all the more necessary that her daughter should understand the complication of a cooking stove and introduce her to its mysteries. At the same time, the daughter and her American teacher could get something of the historic sense and background in the long line of woman’s household work by knowing this primitive woman and learning from her some of the old recipes and methods which have been preserved among the simplest people because of their worth. Take the girl who learns to sew in the public school, whose Italian mother is able to spin with the old stick spindle, reaching back to the period of Homer and David; who knows how to weave and to make her own loom; such a girl’s mother could bring a most valuable background into a schoolroom over-filled with machine-made products, often shoddy and meaningless. As the old crafts may be recovered from a foreign colony and used for the edification of our newer cities, so it is possible to recover something of the arts. We have in Hull House a music school in which some of the foreign-born children have been pupils for twelve years. These children often discover in the neighboring foreign colonies old folk songs which have never been reduced to writing. The music school reproduces these songs and invites the older people to hear them; their pleasure at such a concert is quite touching as they hear the familiar melodies connecting them with their earliest experiences; reminiscent perhaps of their parents and grandparents.
After all, what is the function of art but to preserve in permanent and beautiful form those emotions and solaces which cheer life, make it kindlier and more comprehensible, lift the mind of the worker from the harshness of his task, and, by connecting him with what has gone before, free him from a sense of isolation and hardship? Many American women of education are beginning to feel a sense of obligation for work of this sort. If women have been responsible in any sense for that gentler side of life which softens and blurs some of the conditions of life, then certainly they have a duty to perform in the large foreign colonies which make up so large a part of the American cities. I am sure illustrations occur to all of you as to what might be done in this third line of responsibility, for, whatever we think as to a woman’s fitness to secure betterment through legal enactment, we must agree that responsibility for social standards has always been hers.
In closing, may I recapitulate that if woman would fulfill her traditional responsibility to her own children; if she would educate and protect from danger the children in the community, who now work in factories although they formerly worked in households; if she would in any sense meet the difficulties which modern immigration has brought us; then she must be concerned to push her conscience into the general movements for social amelioration.
● Anonymous, Letter to Margaret Sanger, 1920s
This was one of many letters sent to Margaret Sanger by women in the 1920s.
I am a woman thirty-one years of age and the mother of four children, three girls and one boy. The oldest child is nine years and youngest five months. I am small in stature, weighing only ninety-two pounds while my husband is large, weighing 192 pounds at present time. We feel we simply cannot afford to have any more children. Am sure if we raise and educate our four children we are doing our share. It costs a great deal to feed and clothe and educate children. I think it a great sin to bring them into the world to just grow up any old way, as so many children do. I feel that I cannot train and mould more than four little lives as I do all my own work, washing, ironing, etc. I do not have much extra time to be with my children. As you see we are poor people.
The question is worrying me how to keep from becoming pregnant.
When my first three children were born I got along very well in confinement but five months ago when my last baby came I had a horrible time. The baby was so large I could not give enough and it came very near being the end for us both; as it is he is partially paralyzed in his left shoulder caused from the doctor pulling so hard on his neck and stretching the nerve in his shoulder from the pressure.
It seems to me I cannot risk going through it again. I cannot afford to go to the hospital at such times and am afraid it will sooner or later kill me. As you know there are harmless remedies[;] how much better it would be for me to know how to care for myself so that I might live to see my children grown. Can’t you tell me what to do to keep from becoming pregnant?
● Margaret Sanger, excerpt from The Woman Rebel. No Gods No Masters, March 1914.
This is an excerpt from an essay in Sanger’s magazine.
Is there any reason why women should not receive clean, harmless, scientific knowledge on how to prevent conception? Everybody is aware that the old, stupid fallacy that such knowledge will cause a girl to enter into prostitution has long been shattered. Seldom does a prostitute become pregnant. Seldom does the girl practicing promiscuity become pregnant. The woman of the upper middle class have all available knowledge and implements to prevent conception. The woman of the lower middle class is struggling for this knowledge. She tries various methods of prevention, and after a few years of experience plus medical advice succeeds in discovering some method suitable to her individual self. The woman of the people is the only one left in ignorance of this information. Her neighbors, relatives and friends tell her stories of special devices and the success of them all. They tell her also of the blood-sucking men with M. D. after their names who perform operations for the price of so-and-so. But the working woman’s purse is thin. Its far cheaper to have a baby, “though God knows what it will do after it gets here.” Then, too, all other classes of women live in places where there is at least a semblance of privacy and sanitation. It is easier for them to care for themselves whereas the large majority of the women of the people have no bathing or sanitary conveniences. This accounts too for the fact that the higher the standard of living, the more care can be taken and fewer children result. No plagues, famine or wars could ever frighten the capitalist class so much as the universal practice of the prevention of conception. On the other hand no better method could be utilized for increasing the wages of the workers.
● Maurice Jackson, “Fighting for Democracy in World War I—Overseas and Over Here,” History Now 46 (Fall 2016), The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 49 W. 45th Street, 6th Floor · NYC, NY 10036 (646) 366-9666 © 2009–2013 All Rights Reserved
The United States invaded Haiti, its southern neighbor, in 1915—effectively making it a US protectorate—citing concern over the influence of Germany and France, the financial and political instability of the country, and the “safety” of the newly opened Panama Canal. Yet as war loomed over Europe the US did not declare war with Germany right away, first breaking diplomatic relations on February 3, 1917. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request that war be declared. The Senate voted on April 4 and the House on April 6 to support his appeal.
War plans had been in the making, and “more than a month before the United States declared war, the First Separate Battalion (Colored) of the Washington, D.C., National Guard was mustered into federal service.”  The regiment had at first been assigned to guard the buildings of the Federal Enclave, including the “White House, the Capitol, and other federal buildings, and facilities such as bridges and water supply, against possible enemy sabotage.” A source of pride to blacks in Washington, there was white resistance to the battalion’s mobilization and deployment overseas. None was more verbal than Kentucky congressman Robert Y. Thomas, who said, “I know that a nigger knows nothing about patriotism, love of country, or morality . . . they are going to make trouble wherever they go.” Racist propaganda insisted that blacks could never be men of valor and were not to be trusted on the battlefield. Yet as the war preparations continued, black troops were needed and proved invaluable, just as in the Civil War.
Soon W. E. B. Du Bois caused a stir with his “Close Ranks” essay published in The Crisis in July 1918. The second paragraph of the essay reads:
We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.
Immediately the black press, including Du Bois’s allies, took up verbal arms against his seeming acquiescence. The Pittsburgh Courier editorial was swift and cutting: “The learned Dr. Du Bois has seldom packed more error into a single sentence.”
Chad L. Williams has pointed out that “the War Department implicitly acknowledged the military and political impossibility of assigning every African American draftee for labor duties and thus began floating various ideas for establishing combat units composed of black men procured through the Selective Service System.” Emmett J. Scott was assigned to be the Special Adjutant to the Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. As Baker’s confidential adviser, Scott held “the highest government position ever achieved by a Black.” Scott wrote that blacks should not view him as being able to “effectively abolish overnight all racial discriminations and injustices.” He could not.
African Americans were organized into four regiments under the 93rd infantry division. The four units were the 369th (New York, already sent to France), the 370th (Illinois, which had black officers), the 371st (draftees), and the 372nd. The 372nd regiment was composed of six National Guard units from Washington DC, and the First Battalion Companies A-D, from Maryland, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Connecticut. At first two of the three battalions were led by black officers, but that quickly changed by order of Secretary of War Baker.
The 372nd was first led by a notoriously bigoted white officer, Colonel Glendie Young, instead of its ranking African American, Charles Young, who Du Bois had hoped “might be given his chance here but nothing came of this.” Although racially insensitive officers led the regular Army, the National Guard unit’s leadership, which was led under individual state authority, was far worse.
According to Gail Buckley, “by July 5, 1917, more than 700,000 blacks were registered; less than 10% of the U.S. population, they made up 13% of all U.S. draftees. Of the 367,000 black draftees who ultimately served, 89% were assigned to labor, supply, and service units. Only 11 percent of all black military forces would see combat—the National Guard, and a few southern draftee units.” Gerald Astor writes that of the “404,308 African Americans in the Army . . . around 42,000 could be listed as combat soldiers with 90 percent of them serving in the two infantry divisions.” By January 1919, most had been assigned to segregated units and about 20 percent fought in two specially created all-black combat units.
About 160,000 of the 200,000 blacks sent to France served in SOS [service] units. Roughly 20 percent of the black soldiers or about 40,000 men who were in combat were in the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions. The 372nd division was sent to Alsace, where they fought with the 157th French Division. The men of the 372nd were led by senior white and junior black officers. They arrived in France in early summer of 1918 and joined the French 157th Red Hand Division. The French commanding general paid tribute, stating “[t]he ‘Red Hand’ sign of the Division, thanks to you [black soldiers], became a bloody hand . . . You have well avenged our glorious dead.”
As African Americans began to arrive on French shores in 1918, most under British or French command, they were exploited and often degraded by white officers. For some, “the French experience became decisive in the development of a new sense of solidarity,” among themselves and some of the African units. The French people did not have the problems that the American whites had in recognizing the heroics of black Americans. Some white officers were able to overcome the racism. Said one: “I’d take my chance of going anywhere with these black soldiers at my back. So would any of the rest of the officers.” In total, during the war the 93rd Division suffered 584 men killed and 2,852 wounded. Of the 400,000 black soldiers, about “20 percent served in combat roles.” The men of the 372nd suffered more than 600 casualties. The French government awarded the regiment the Croix de Guerre with Palm. Three of its officers were honored with the French Legion of Honor, 123 men personally won the Croix de Guerre, and twenty-six were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The “First Separate Battalion” also received the Croix de Guerre.
The most famous unit was the 369th Infantry known as the Harlem Hellfighters because they were a New York African American regiment. The US Army would not allow them to serve alongside white soldiers, so they were merged into the French military and were supplied with French supplies, were based in French camps, and fought in France. Many are buried near the Argonne Forests and others near the trenches of Aisne-Marne. Black soldiers had longed to go home from the war and some sang the verses:
Some returning soldiers later were lynched while still in their military uniforms. Sadly it was not until June 2, 2015—when President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Private Henry Johnson, a member of the famed Harlem Hellfighters—that those African Americans who served received due recognition for their service. One of Johnson’s compatriots said of the French appreciation of Johnson and his fellow Bronze fighters,
France has wept over them—wept the tears of gratitude and love. France had sung and danced and cried to their music. France had given its first war medal for an American private to one of their number. France had given them the collective citation of flying the Croix de Guerre streamers at the peak of its colors. France had kissed those colored soldiers—kissed them with reverence and in honor, first upon the right cheek and then upon the left.
Other soldiers came home with renewed hope, military discipline, and knowledge of weapons. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of their bravery in war, and of the racism they came home to, in his article “Returning Soldiers”:
We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.
 Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri, The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974), 19.
 Barbeau and Henri, The Unknown Soldiers, 19–20.
 Quoted in Barbeau and Henri, The Unknown Soldiers, 78.
 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Close Ranks,” in David Levering Lewis, ed., W. E. B. Du Bois: A Reader (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1995), 697.
 Pittsburgh Courier, July 20, 1918, quoted in David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994), 556.
 Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 67.
 Emmett J. Scott, “The Participation of Negroes in World War I: An Introductory Statement,” Journal of Negro Education 12 (1943), 288–297.
 Gail Buckley, American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm (New York: Random House, 2001), 178–179.
 The Record of the 372nd, Chapter XVII, http://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/comment/scott/SCh17.htm. In French units there were about 500,000 African soldiers. While Africans who fought for France were given French citizenship, black Americans were not even given equal American citizenship.
 Monroe Mason and Arthur Furr, The American Negro with the Red Hand of France (Boston: Cornwill, 1920), 43–44. Upon arriving in France, the 372nd Infantry was immediately assigned to the 157th Infantry of the French Army—the renowned Red Hand Division—to help fight in the famous Meuse-Argonne offensive.
 See Michael E. Ruane, “Harlem Hellfighters: In WWI, we were good enough to go anyplace,” Washington Post, June 1, 2015, and Sarah Kaplan, “WWI ‘Harlem Hellfighter,’ relegated by racism, to receive Medal of Honor,” Washington Post, May 15, 2015. The campaign to honor Henry Johnson was led by US senator Charles E. Schumer (D-New York). On May 5, 2015, Senator Schumer issued a press release entitled “An American Hero Will Finally Get the Medal He Deserves.”
Maurice Jackson is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), and the co-editor of African Americans and the Haitian Revolution (Routledge, 2009) and Quakers and Their Allies in the Abolitionist Cause, 1754–1808 (Routledge, 2015).
● James W. Alston, letter, “James W. Alston to H. H. Brimley,” Nov. 1, 1918.
James William Alston was born in Wake County, NC on January 16, 1876. In 1907, he started working as a janitor and messenger for the State Museum. During the war, Alston wrote several letters to H. H. Brimley, who was white. Brimley was a curator and the first director of the State Museum. Alston was one of the first officers to be trained at the newly created African American officer’s training school created at Fort Dodge, Iowa in the spring of 1917. He served as a First Lieutenant in the 372nd Infantry, an all-black regiment, during World War I. Alston From: Digital Public Library of America, Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.
My Dear Mr. Brimley: You will probably think that I am a long time getting back to the front, but the [illegible] here is the boss and won’t let me go, but promised this morning that I could go in about ten days. My wound is all healed and with the exception of a very little stiffness I am as good as ever. There is so much talk of peace I want to get back and have another try at Fritz before the finish. I think I have pretty well evened the score with him but I want to give him some more for good measure. Fritz can fight like the very devil when he is under cover and has the most men, but can’t stand the Yankee steel and these Yankees, white and black sure love to use their bayonet whenever they can get near enough to him. I am in the southern part of France in the town of Vichy and quartered in one of the best hotels in the town. There are about one hundred officers at the hotel and I the only colored one so you know I am lonesome. I was as hungry as a dog the first night that I was here but walking in the dinning room seeing about one hundred white officer and no colored officers I lost my appetite – but it came back by morning and has stayed with since. I am treated fine by all the officers but most of them say I am a damn fool for wanting to get back to the front. I met Mr Thos. F Ryan’s son he is a Sgt. in the Medical Corps he is sure one fine man, and is crazy to go to the front but the Col. won’t let him. I wish you would send me Mr Garland Jones, and Bob’s address so if any time I am near their outfit I can look them up. I see lots of people from the state but none from Raleigh but prehaps [sic] I will have luck enough to see some one before I come [crossed out in MS: go] back to the good old U.S.A. There is no news except Fritz is catching the very devil. My best regards to Mrs Brimley, Mr & Mrs Adickes [?] and all friends
Yours very respectfully James W Alston 372 R. I. U. S. S.P. 179 France
● Kathryn Johnson and Addie Hunton, from Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces, Brooklyn Eagle Press, 1920.
Kathryn Magnolia Johnson (1878–1955), a high school teacher, worked for the NAACP as a field agent from 1913 to 1916, establishing branches in the Midwest and South. Addie Waites Hunton (1866–1943), a fellow teacher, worked as a NAACP field organizer from 1921 to 1924 and helped arrange the 1927 Pan-African Congress. In 1918 Johnson and Hunton sailed for France as YMCA workers to aid black troops. They wrote about their experience in, Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces, excerpts of which are below.
–Introduction from the Library of Congress.
While there is very little exception to the rule that the colored soldiers were generally and wonderfully helped by the colored secretaries, and while the official heads of the Y. M. C. A. at Paris were in every way considerate and courteous to its colored constituency, still there is no doubt that the attitude of many of the white secretaries in the field was to be deplored. They came from all parts of the United States, North, South, East and West, and brought their native prejudices with them. Our soldiers often told us of signs on Y. M. C. A. huts which read, “No Negroes Allowed”; and sometimes other signs would designate the hours when colored men could be served; we remember seeing such instructions written in crayon on a bulletin board at one of the huts at Camp I, St. Nazaire; signs prohibiting the entrance of colored men were frequently seen during the beginning of the work in that section; but always, when the matter was brought to the attention of Mr. W. S. Wallace, the regional secretary, he would immediately see that they were removed.
Sometimes, even, when there were no such signs, services to colored soldiers would be refused. One such soldier came to the Leave Area, and one day, whereupon the sergeant, still smarting under the insult of the day before, unceremoniously ejected him from the building.
One secretary had a colored band come to his hut to entertain his men. Several colored soldiers followed the band into the hut. The secretary got up and announced that no colored men would be admitted. The leader of the band, a white man, by the way, immediately informed his men that they need not play; whereupon all departed and there was no entertainment. Some huts would permit colored men to come in and purchase supplies at the canteen, but would not let them sit down and write, while others received them without any discrimination whatever.
Quite a deal of unpleasantness was experienced on the boats coming home. One secretary in charge of a party sailing from Bordeaux, attempted to put all the colored men in the steerage. They rebelled and left the ship; whereupon arrangements were made to give them the same accommodations as the others.
On another boat there were nineteen colored welfare workers; all the women were placed on a floor below the white women, and the entire colored party was placed in an obscure, poorly ventilated section of the dining-room, entirely separated from the other workers by a long table of Dutch civilians. The writer immediately protested; the reply was made that southern white workers on board the ship would be insulted if the colored workers ate in the same section of the dining-room with them, and, at any rate, the colored people need not expect any such treatment as had been given them by the French.
But Y. M. C. A. secretaries were not always responsible for discriminations that occurred in the Y. M. C. A. huts. In some places, commanding officers would order signs put up. On another page is a picture of a hut located at Camp Guthrie, near St. Nazaire. The small sign just on the right of the picture says, “Colored Soldiers Only.” The hut secretary here was a colored man, the Rev. T. A. Griffith, formerly of Des Moines, Iowa, and Topeka, Kan. To this hut came many white soldiers to listen to his sermons, and to get into the ice cream line at the canteen. At the same time many of the colored soldiers went to the other hut, where there was a white secretary, to be served in the ice cream line. In time these boys were told that they must get out of the line and be served at their own hut. Simultaneously Rev. Griffith was told to keep the white men out of his line, and let them be served where there were white secretaries. Rev. Griffith did not do this, but left the order to be enforced by the colonel who had made it. When the colonel saw that his order was not being recognized at the colored hut, he had the sign put up as shown in the picture. Rev. Griffith made a number of efforts to get the sign removed, but to no avail.
But there were splendid men among both secretaries and army officials, who honestly and actively opposed discrimination. Mention already has been made of our personal knowledge of Mr. W. S. Wallace at St. Nazaire, who was always on the alert to see that the colored soldiers had a square deal; while at Brest we found an equally fine spirit in the person of Major Roberts, the army welfare officer.
While welfare organizations other than the Y. M. C. A. did not employ colored workers, still, we had the opportunity of observing the attitude they assumed toward the colored troops. It was a part of the multiplicity of the duties of colored Y women to visit the hospitals; here they found colored soldiers placed indiscriminately in wards with white soldiers, while officers were accorded the same treatment as were their white comrades. However, we learned that in some places, colored officers would be placed in wards with private soldiers, instead of being given private rooms, as was their military right; and one soldier tells how, after being twice wounded in the Argonne drive, he was taken to Base Hospital No. 56; here he, and others, waited three days before they could secure the attention of either a doctor or a nurse; but when these attendants finally came, the colored soldiers were taken from the hospital beds and placed on cots which were shoved into one end of the room where there was no heat; they then received medical attention, always after the others had been well attended, and were given the food that remained after the others had been served.
There was one notable incident of discrimination on the part of the Knights of Columbus. It occurred at Camp Romagne, where there were about 9,000 colored soldiers engaged in the heartbreaking task of reburying the dead. The white soldiers here were acting as clerks, and doing the less arduous tasks. The Knights of Columbus erected a tent here and placed thereon a signs to keep colored soldiers away. The colored soldiers, heartsore because they, of all the soldiers, German prisoners, etc., that there were in France, should alone be forced to do this terrible task of moving the dead from where they had been temporarily buried to a permanent resting place, immediately resented the outrage and razed the tent to the ground. The officers became frightened lest there should be mutiny, mounted a machine gun to keep order, and commanded the four colored women who were doing service there to proceed at once to Paris.
The Y. W. C. A. was another welfare organization with overseas workers; their field of service was among the women welfare workers of other organizations, and the French war brides who were waiting to come to America with their American soldier husbands. No colored representative of this organization was sent over, as the number of colored women was so small that she would have had no field in which to operate. Few, if any, of the white Y. W. C. A. workers gave any attention to this little colored group, notwithstanding the fact that they were women, and Americans, just like the others. One, however, remembers a greeting of much insulting superiority and snobbishness, by one of its representatives whom she met on the street. After that she always felt it necessary to keep in places where they were not to be seen. Of course, all of them were not of this type, but there was no way of being sure of those who were not. As an organization there is no doubt that much good was accomplished by them, especially in furnishing reasonable and comfortable hotel accommodations for women welfare workers in Paris, and also in caring for the wives of soldiers who were waiting to come home, in the crowded seaport cities.
The largest Y. M. C. A. hut in France was one built at Camp Lusitania, St. Nazaire, for the use of colored soldiers. It was the first hut built for our boys, and for its longest period of service was under the supervision of Rev. D. Leroy Ferguson, of Louisville, Ky. It reached its highest state of efficiency and cleanliness under Mr. J. C. Croom, of Goldsboro, N. C. It did service for 9,000 men, and had, in addition to the dry canteen, a library of 1,500 volumes, a money-order department which sometimes sent out as much as $2,000 a day to the home folks; a school room where 1,100 illiterates were taught to read and write; a large lobby for writing letters and playing games; and towards the close of the work, a wet canteen, which served hot chocolate, lemonade and cakes to the soldiers.
To this hut one of us was assigned, and served there for nearly nine months. The work was pleasant and profitable to all concerned, and no woman could have received better treatment anywhere than was received at the hands of these 9,000 who helped to fight the battle of St. Nazaire by unloading the great ships that came into the harbor. Among the duties found there were to assist in religious work; to equip a library with books, chairs, tables, decorations, etc., and establish a system of lending books; to write letters for the soldiers; to report allotments that had not been paid; to establish a money order system; to search for lost relatives at home; to do shopping for the boys whose time was too limited to do it themselves; to teach illiterates to read and write; to spend a social hour with those who wanted to tell her their stories of joy or sorrow.
All of this kept one woman so busy that she found no time to think of anything else, not even to take the ten days’ vacation which was allowed her every four months. In a hut of similar size among white soldiers, there would have been at least six women, and perhaps eight men. Here the only woman had from two to five male associates. Colored workers everywhere were so limited that one person found it necessary to do the work of three or four.
Just on the suburbs of St. Nazaire, about two miles from Camp Lusitania, was another hut, the second oldest for colored men in France. Here the other one of the writers spent six months of thrilling, all-absorbing service; while about six miles out, in the little town of Montoir, where thousands of labor troops and engineers had permanent headquarters, the third of the colored women to come to this section ran a large canteen, supplying chocolate, doughnuts, pie and sometimes ice cream to the grateful soldiers. This hut was far too small for the number of soldiers it had to entertain, but it was made large in its hospitality by the genial, good-natured, energetic Mr. William Stevenson, its first hut secretary, now Y. M. C. A. secretary, Washington, D. C. He started the work in a tent, and built it up to a veritable thriving beehive of activity.
There were several other localities in the neighborhood of St. Nazaire, where one colored secretary would be utilized to reach an isolated set. They usually worked in tents. Other places where Y. M. C. A. buildings, huts or tents for colored soldiers were located, were Bordeaux, Brest, Le Mans, Challes-les-Eaux, Chambery, Marseilles, Joinville, Belleau Wood, Fere-en-Tardenois, Orly, Is-sur-Tille, Remacourt, Chaumont, and Camp Romagne near Verdun.
Rolling canteens ran out from some places, reaching points where the soldiers had no Y. M. C. A. conveniences. This was a small automobile truck, equipped with material for serving chocolate and doughnuts, and operated by a chauffeur, and a Y woman who dispensed smiles and sunshine to the ofttimes homesick boys, along with whatever she had to tempt their appetites.
The last, and perhaps the most difficult piece of constructive work done by the colored workers, was at Camp Pontanezen, Brest. It has been told in another chapter how one of the writers received Brest as her first appointment, and how she was immediately informed upon her arrival that because of the roughness of the colored men, she would not be allowed to serve them. That woman went away with the determination to return to Brest, and serve the colored men there, if there was any way to make an opening; so after finishing her work in the Leave Area, she and her co-worker, who had been relieved from duty at Camp Ramagne, were finally permitted to go there, as has been previously explained.
Upon their arrival, they were told that they would be assigned to Camp President Lincoln, where there were about 12,000 S. O. S. troops. Here there were several secretaries and chaplains, and the need was greater at Camp Pontanezen, where there were 40,000 men, and only one colored secretary. The writers requested that they be located there. The appointment was held up for one day, and finally they became located at Soldiers’ Rest Hut, in the desired camp.
They were told that they must retain a room in the city, as the woman’s dormitory at Camp Pontanezen was filled to its capacity. But they contended that to do so would take them away from the soldiers at a time in the evening when they could be of the greatest service. Finally, it was arranged for them to stay in the hut, much to the dissatisfaction of the white secretary in charge.
The next morning before they left their room, a message was received, telling them that transportation would be at the door at any moment they desired, to take them back to Brest; that Major Roberts, the Camp Welfare Officer, had said that they must not stay in the hut. Upon investigation by Mr. B. F. Lee, Jr., the lone colored secretary at this tremendous camp, it was learned that Major Roberts had been told that the women were uncomfortable, and did not wish to stay.
Mr. Lee explained that such was not true. The Welfare Officer then visited the hut, talked with the women, recognized the situation, gave his consent to their staying, and assured them that he was willing and ready to do anything in his power to make them comfortable, and assist in equipping the hut. The white secretary, seeing that the women were going to stay, acquiesced in the situation, instead of moving out, and did everything he could to assist.
After this there was no difficulty experienced at Camp Pontanezen. The camp secretary and his staff put every means at our disposal to assist us in the work, while the head of the women’s work was at all times helpful and sympathetic. From the time she received us at Brest, until our departure, she showed us every consideration and courtesy due Y. M. C. A. secretaries.
During the nearly seven weeks there, the chief of the women’s work for France paid the city a visit, in order that she might, among other things, visit the colored work.
The two women remained in the same hut about two weeks, when Major Roberts gave one of the most beautiful huts in the camp to the colored soldiers. It had been occupied by the 106th Engineers, and had been built for their own private use. It contained a beautiful stage; a large auditorium, seating 1,100 people, with a balcony and boxes for officers. It also had a beautiful library and reading room, as well as a wet canteen. To this hut came Mr. B. F. Lee, Jr., and one of the women, while the other remained at Soldiers’ Rest Hut, and became its hut secretary. To join them came two other women from Paris, one of whom was placed in each hut, making the total number of women secretaries, four.
The new hut was quickly gotten in order, sleeping quarters being arranged, a new library built, and a game room made by removing partitions from under the balcony.
There were several other large huts at Camp Pontanezen, that were used for long periods exclusively by colored soldiers; but in the absence of colored women, white women, sometimes as many as five in a hut, gave a service that was necessarily perfunctory, because their prejudices would not permit them to spend a social hour with a homesick colored boy, or even to sew on a service stripe, were they asked to do so. But the very fact that they were there showed a change in the policy from a year previous, when a colored woman even was not permitted to serve them.
In nearly all the Y. M. C. A. huts, in every section of France, moving pictures would be operated every afternoon and evening. Many times before the movies, some kind of an entertainment would be furnished by the entertainment department of the Y. M. C. A. There were shows furnished by French or American dramatists; concert parties by singers and musicians of all nationalities, and frequently a lecture on health and morals. The movies and shows were the most popular forms of entertainment, and on these occasions the huts would always be crowded, as all entertainments given by the Y. M. C. A. were free.
The organization also did much to promote clean morals among the men, by the free distribution of booklets, tracts, and wholesome pictures. This literature would be placed in literature cases, and the men would select their own material, while the pictures would be placed in parts of the hut where they would be easily visible. Some of the booklets which were unusually popular among the men were “Nurse and Knight,” “Out of the Fog,“ “When a Man’s Alone,” “The Spirit of a Soldier,“and ”A Square Deal”; while quantities of other stories with sharply drawn morals were distributed by the thousands and thousands of copies.
All told, the Y. M. C. A., with a tremendous army of workers, many of whom were untrained, did a colossal piece of welfare work overseas. The last hut for the colored Americans in France was closed at Camp Pontanezen, Brest, on August 3, 1919, by one of the writers; the two of them having given the longest period of active service of any of the colored women who went overseas.
From Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson,Two Colored Women With The American Expeditionary Forces, (Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn-Eagle Press, 1920), pp. 26–39, 53–54.
● George Schuyler, “The Negro Art Hokum,” The Nation, June 16, 1926
The author was an African American journalist and social commentator.
Negro art “made in America” is as non-existent as the widely advertised profundity of Cal Coolidge, the “seven years of progress” of Mayor Hylan, or the reported sophistication of New Yorkers. Negro art there has been, is, and will be among the numerous black nations of Africa; but to suggest the possibility of any such development among the ten million colored people in this republic is self-evident foolishness. Eager apostles from Greenwich Village, Harlem, and environs proclaimed a great renaissance of Negro art just around the corner waiting to be ushered on the scene by those whose hobby is taking races, nations, peoples, and movements under their wing. New art forms expressing the “peculiar” psychology of the Negro were about to flood the market. In short, the art of Homo Africanus was about to electrify the waiting world. Skeptics patiently waited. They still wait.
True, from dark-skinned sources have come those slave songs based on Protestant hymns and Biblical texts known as the spirituals, work songs and secular songs of sorrow and tough luck known as the blues, that outgrowth of ragtime known as jazz (in the development of which whites have assisted), and the Charleston, an eccentric dance invented by the gamins around the public market-place in Charleston, S. C. No one can or does deny this. But these are contributions of a caste in a certain section of the country. They are foreign to Northern Negroes, West Indian Negroes, and African Negroes. They are no more expressive or characteristic of the Negro race than the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders or the Dalmatian peasantry are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race. If one wishes to speak of the musical contributions of the peasantry of the south, very well. Any group under similar circumstances would have produced something similar. It is merely a coincidence that this peasant class happens to be of a darker hue than the other inhabitants of the land. One recalls the remarkable likeness of the minor strains of the Russian mujiks to those of the Southern Negro.
As for the literature, painting, and sculpture of Aframericans—such as there is—it is identical in kind with the literature, painting, and sculpture of white Americans: that is, it shows more or less evidence of European influence. In the field of drama little of any merit has been written by and about Negroes that could not have been written by whites. The dean of the Aframerican literati written by and about Negroes that could not have been written by whites. The dean of the Aframerican literati is W. E. B. Du Bois, a product of Harvard and German universities; the foremost Aframerican sculptor is Meta Warwick Fuller, a graduate of leading American art schools and former student of Rodin; while the most noted Aframerican painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is dean of American painters in Paris and has been decorated by the French Government. Now the work of these artists is no more “expressive of the Negro soul”—as the gushers put it—than are the scribblings of Octavus Cohen or Hugh Wiley.
This, of course, is easily understood if one stops to realize that the Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon. If the European immigrant after two or three generations of exposure to our schools, politics, advertising, moral crusades, and restaurants becomes indistinguishable from the mass of Americans of the older stock (despite the influence of the foreign-language press), how much truer must it be of the sons of Ham who have been subjected to what the uplifters call Americanism for the last three hundred years. Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American. Negroes and whites from the same localities in this country talk, think, and act about the same. Because a fe