|Trench Warfare: Soldiers with Gas Masks|
While the USA did not enter the war until 1917, a good place to start your armchair journey of understanding can be found in a newly released book, The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (your purchase of this book through Amazon Smile will benefit BlackPast.org: just click here). There are also some excellent works of fiction that will provide an emotional context to your learning experience as well as offering reliable information, including Pat Barker's trilogy Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road. Other voices and opinions can be explored here.
President Wilson had tried to steer the USA on a course of neutrality, refusing to send troops and other forms of assistance to Europe. A variety of events and decisions caused him to take positive action to support the alliance of Britain and European nations against Germany. As a nation made up largely of immigrants from different ethnic, religious, and geographic backgrounds, America found itself in a very awkward position. There were pacifists and objectors who continued to advocate for non-involvement. In terms of geographic breakdown in the US, the North generally opposed the war and the South supported it. The African American community, most of whom lived in the South, were neutral. However, the country eventually rallied. A month after Congress declared war, W.E.B.DuBois urged African Americans to "fight shoulder to shoulder with the world to gain a world where war shall be no more".** The draft began and black men were called up: this became the game-changer in the lives of African Americans that continues to reverberate today. As blacks fought and died for their country and for the larger cause of peace and democratic principles, they began to demand the equal treatment at home that they found abroad. On the home front, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing (on the main page of BlackPast.org, search for 'Harlem Renaissance' for detailed listings of history, art, culture, and politics) as well as the Great Migration; this contributed to intensifying the knowledge that not only was change possible, but that it was imminent.
|Black Troops in the Trenches|
Because America's involvement in World War I was less protracted than Europe's, much less literature and poetry was generated. One group of soldiers were the inspiration for both non-fiction and fiction and that was the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. A new graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White, was published this year.
If you are now ready for a virtual WWI experience, there are many documentaries and film clips at the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and, of course, YouTube and the History Channel.
To make an actual excursion to visit the sites where these brave men fought and many died, one of the best places to start is the Imperial War Museum in London. There you will get a full overview of the War, walk through a trench, view art that expresses the horrors, sorrows, and few joys of that war. If you prefer to travel within the US, the National World War I Museum in Kansas City offers similar experiences, including information on African American soldiers. There are many organized tours of battlefields. But once you have done the reading, watched the videos, been to a museum of two, buy some travel guides and map your own tour based the documented experiences of African American soldiers such John Henry "Doc" Hamilton of the 92nd Infantry Division and the 93rd Infantry Division (which included the Harlem Hellfighters).
**Panayi, Panakos,"Minorities in Wartime: National and Racial Groupings in Europe, North America, and Australia During the Two World Wars" (1992) p.170.