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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Forward
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Forward
Text 1. 1913: Fifty Years
Text 2. Two Views
Text 3. The NAACP
Text 4. Protest
Text 5. Popular Culture
Text 6. World War I
Text 7. 1917: Forward

Timeline: 1860-1920

Highest Grade, Shelby Co. School, Tennessee, 1917
Highest Grade, Shelby Co. School, Tennessee, 1917

Resource Menu

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What gains and setbacks mark the period of 1907 to 1917 for black Americans?
  •  To what extent did African Americans set their own paths forward?
  •  How were the lives of ordinary black people affected by black and white leadership?
  •  What identity had African Americans created, as a group, between 1865 and 1917?
  •  What insights could black Americans take forward into the postwar years and the 1920s?

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  1.  1913: Fifty Years
- James Weldon Johnson, "Fifty Years, 1863-1913," poem, 1913
- Booker T. Washington, "Negro Progress in Virginia," address, 1913
- Lucious Curtis, "Times Is Gettin' Harder," blues, as performed in 1940

1913 marked the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and celebrations were held across the nation to herald the event. Philadelphia hosted a special Proclamation exhibition, and Meta Warrick-Fuller sculpted an emancipation monument that still stands in Harriet Tubman Park in Boston. In addition to revelry was soul-searching. Was the promise of the Proclamation alive and well? What had one done to foster equality, tolerance, and economic opportunity? James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem "Fifty Years," published in the New York Times on January 1, 1913, in which he championed hope despite the nation's failure to honor its black citizens as equals. Later in the year, Booker T. Washington delivered an address in Virginia applauding its black organizations and white supporters on the "Negro progress" they had achieved in the more mundane yet critical aspects of living free (and poor) in the South. 1913 also marked the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, whose seemingly progressive views on race encouraged black Americans, at least for a while.

For most African Americans in 1913, however, life was hard, plain hard, with few gains to savor from the fifty years of freedom. So it is important that we include the blues song "Times Is Getting' Harder" as we begin the period of 1907 to 1917, tumultuous years of "race war," the U.S. entry into the Great War, and the Great Migration north. 10 pages.

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  2.  Two Views
- Fenton Johnson, "Children of the Sun" and "Tired," poems, ca. 1915

In historical analysis, it is easy to posit sides. How would Du Bois and Washington differ on Point A? What issue would most divide southern and northern whites in 1900? But history is still about people, persons, and persons struggle with mixed feelings about the times they live in and how they fit in. So before we continue, let us look at the struggle of one person, the black poet Fenton Johnson, as he deals with being a black man in white America in the 1910s.

Johnson was born into a middle-class African American family in Chicago. As a college student he pursued journalism and creative writing, and in the 1910s published short stories in The Crisis, produced several volumes of poetry, and founded two literary journals. James Weldon Johnson, in his 1921 collection The Book of American Negro Poetry, cites him as among the poets who "threw over the traditions of American poetry and became the makers of the 'new' poetry" after 1910. Consider these two poems in the light of others in this seminar, including Horton's "Song of Liberty," Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask," and Johnson's "Fifty Years." How does the black man strive forward? Where does hope lie? And the fear of fears: what if he loses hope? Fenton Johnson "fell silent" after 1921, James Johnson writes, and produced no more poetry for over ten years. 2 pages.

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  3.  The NAACP
- National Negro Committee, Call for a national conference, 1909

After years of benign response to lynchings and mob violence, many white Americans were shocked by the 1908 "race riot" in Springfield, Illinois. How could this happen in Abraham Lincoln's longtime home? Why were northern cities fueling the same violence associated with southern mobs? What could be done? One thing was to organize. In February 1909, to coincide with the centennial of Lincoln's birth, a group of northern white and black activists sent out letters calling for a national conference to address the problem. "Silence under these conditions means tacit approval," they insisted. They named their group the National Negro Committee, and among them were Mary White Ovington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Rev. Francis J. Grimké, Rabbi Emil Hirsch, and William English Walling, the signer of the letter presented here. At the conference which convened that May in New York City, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded. 4 pages.

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  4.  Protest
- Monroe Trotter, On his meeting with President Wilson, The Crisis, January 1915
- D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation, film, 1915, videoclips

The NAACP faced a heavy agenda. Discrimination, violence, and incendiary anti-black media were escalating. making life even more precarious for African Americans. Their hope in the new president Woodrow Wilson was quashed when, one month after his inauguration in 1913, he ordered the segregation of all federal workplaces. In quick response, the NAACP launched a protest campaign through its increasing number of local chapters, a tactic it would use two years later against the incendiary film Birth of a Nation. It also began its long history of appealing to the courts to enforce the civil rights guaranteed in the Constitution. In cases initiated by the NAACP, the Supreme Court struck down the use of the grandfather clause in 1915, and in 1917 overturned laws requiring segregated neighborhoods. 1917 also saw the NAACP's first protest parade, organized after the horrific massacre of blacks in East St. Louis, Illinois, considered one of the worst "race riots" in U.S. history. These documents testify to the innovative spirit of the NAACP in creating protest methods that proved effective through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s/60s and beyond. 1 page.

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  5.  Popular Culture
- Meta Warrick-Fuller, Ethiopia Awakening, sculpture, 1914
- Realization of a Negro's Ambition, film poster, 1915
- George Bellows, Both Members of This Club, oil on canvas, 1909
- William Waring Cuney, "My Lord, What a Morning," poem, n.d.

The issues faced by the NAACP in the social/political arena were mirrored in the popular culture of the time. As is always the case. For most whites, the image of the lazy simple black man was perpetuated in the minstrel shows and show tunes of the time. But for black people, the emergence of the African American image as a proud icon was apparent from the fine arts to the athletic arena, and to the new medium of moving pictures. Four example are presented here—a sculpture, a film poster, a painting, and a poem.

Two works represent the unapologetic depiction of black identity and, daringly, the act of self-definition. In 1914 Meta Warrick Fuller, creator of the "Negro Tableaux" for the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, sculpted the image of a stalwart, and self-contained black woman, reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, in Ethiopia Awakening. A year later, in response to the film Birth of a Nation, the black actor Noble Johnson and his brother George created the first African American-owned film studio; its first production was the provocatively titled Realization of a Negro's Ambition. Depicting the American dream of a lowly man who strikes oil and becomes a millionaire, the film was a "'Class A' Negro motion picture," Johnson wrote, "minus all burlesque and humiliating comedy.'" No copy of the film exists, but a poster for the film reveals its import at the time to black Americans.

Boxing became an avenue of social acceptance for blacks early in the century, and one venue was the athletic "clubs" [bars] which required one-day membership for the fighters, black and white. Thus the title given by white artist George Bellows to his painting Both Members of This Club, alluding to the brief equality allowed the black contender. In the painting the black man is surely ascendant, the white man near defeat. (Of a significance you can ponder, Bellows initially titled his painting A White Man and a Nigger.) The most famous boxer of the time, of course, was Jack Johnson, who defeated the "Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries in 1910 to defend the heavyweight title he had won two years earlier in Australia. Black poet Waring Cuney's brief lines, "My Lord, What a Morning," written years after the event, convey the impact of Johnson's victory for black Americans. 4 pages.

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  6.  World War I
- Emmett J. Scott, Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War, 1919
  Ch. 3: "Official Recognition of the Negro's Interest"
  Ch. 6: "A Critical Situation in the Camps"

Although this seminar marks its end point at 1917, months before the first American soldiers arrived in Europe, it would be incomplete without a look at the impact of the Great War on African Americans at home. The doubts that whites voiced about blacks' loyalty and military trainability reveal the depth of the racism prevalent at the time. The mistreatment of black soldiers in training camps was documented by the NAACP, which worked to alleviate the hardships. The anger directed at African American war workers and labor organizers was toxic, and at times broke into mob violence. The war to "make the world safe for democracy" had myopic leadership.

One war-related decision of the federal government, however, was a positive signal to black Americans. In 1917 the secretary of Tuskegee Institute, Emmett J. Scott, was appointed to the Department of War as a "confidential advisor in matters affecting the interests of the 10,000,000 Negroes of the United States, and the part they are to play in connection with the present war." After the war he wrote the extensively illustrated Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War. In these two chapters, we read of the charged environment in which Scott took his position, and of the conditions in the southern training camps. A carefully constructed work, it speaks volumes "between the lines." 13 pages (not including photographs).

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  7.  1917: Forward
- Letters from black migrants in Chicago, 1917, excerpts
- Norfolk [Virginia] Journal and Guide et al., coverage of African American labor organizing, 1917
- The Ohio Federation for Uplift Among Colored People, "Are You With Us?," pamphlet, 1917
- Jelly Roll Morton, "Jelly Roll Blues," ca. 1911, as performed in 1924

"I just begin to feel like a man," writes a black man, a newcomer in Chicago in 1917, to a friend back in Mississippi. "I don't have to umble to no one." Amidst the racial strife of 1917—prejudice against black soldiers, fierce resistance to black labor organizing, massive rioting in Houston and East St. Louis—these words sound a note of hope. In this spirit, a group of Ohio black leaders issued a call to sympathetic whites—"Are You With Us"—to cooperate in their work to alleviate the "acute problems brought about by the unprecedented migration" of southern blacks to their area. "We have the 'pep' of desire to 'do our bit,'" they conclude, "if you—individually you—will do yours. . . " A new age was is the making, one could speculate.

To conclude your study in this seminar, reflect on the changes in black Americans' lives from 1865 through 1917, a period of fifty-three years. In the background, listen to the piano blues of another black man who left the South in 1917—Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans native whose blending of ragtime, blues, and Caribbean music places him among the founders of jazz, often called the only truly American art form. Whites would pay dearly to hear his music in the 1920s and later, music that was spawned in this time. 12 pages.

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