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“No Negroes Allowed”: Segregation at the Front in World War I

In this excerpt fromTwo Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces, Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson told the story of black soldiers and canteen workers. Sponsored by the YMCA and other charitable organizations, canteens were efforts to maintain soldiers' morale and to keep them from vice. Their account commemorated and celebrated African-American participation in the war, even as it noted segregation and discrimination within the effort to “save the world for democracy.” The YMCA was one of a very few examples of interracial effort and cooperation during this period; nonetheless, Hunton and Johnson note that some workers of the organization failed to live up to its ideals. German propaganda directed to African-American soldiers used such examples of racism to decry the hypocrisy of the United States and to exhort black soldiers to surrender to the German army.

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.

The following is a copy of an order issued in another section:




Y. M. C. A.

There are two Y. M. C. A.'s, one near the camp, for white troops, and one in town, for the colored troops. All men will be instructed to patronize their own Y.

By order of COL. DOANE.


May, 1919. Adjutant.

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.

As a rule, only words of praise were heard for the Salvation Army, whose field of service was very small but very excellent.

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.

On August 22, the regiment took over its first trenches at the front in the Vosges Sector, where they remained until September 18, during which time numerous raids, patrols, etc., were planned and executed.

One of the interesting things that happened to them while in this sector, was the dropping of propaganda literature from German aircraft. The following circular was picked up by them on September 3, 1918:

TO THE COLORED SOLDIERS OF THE UNITED STATES ARMYCan you get into a restaurant where white people dine? Can you get a seat in a theatre where white people sit? Can you get a seat or a berth in a railroad car, or can you even ride in the South in the same street car with the white people?

And how about the law? Is lynching and the most horrible crimes connected therewith, a lawful proceeding in a Democratic country? Now all this is entirely different in Germany, where they do like colored people; where they treat them as gentlemen and as white men, and quite a number of colored people have fine positions in business in Berlin and other German cities. Why, then, fight the Germans only for the benefit of the Wall Street robbers, and to protect the millions that they have loaned to the English, French, and Italians?

You have been made the tool of the egotistic and rapacious rich in America, and there is nothing in the whole game for you but broken bones, horrible wounds, spoiled health, or death. No satisfaction whatever will you get out of this unjust war. You have never seen Germany, so you are fools if you allow people to make you hate us. Come over and see for yourself. Let those do the fighting who make the profit out of this war. Don’t allow them to use you as cannon fodder.

To carry a gun in this service is not an honor but a shame. Throw it away and come over to the German lines. You will find friends who will help you."

Source: 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.

See Also:"His Car Is His Pride": Ode to a World War I Ambulance
"This Is How It Was": An American Nurse in France During World War I
Gas and Flame in World War I: The New Weapons of Terror
"Bombed Last Night": Singing at the Front in World War I
Hot Chocolate: A World War I "Canteen Girl" Writes Home