At the end of World War I, W.E.B. Du Bois went to France to gather information about the mistreatment of black soldiers by the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Du Bois returned to the U.S. to inform Americans about that mistreatment.
He gave two of his talks in Nebraska. In Lincoln on May 21, 1919, he spoke at All Souls’ Unitarian Church about “The Negro and the War.” Both blacks and whites were in attendance. The next day, he gave an address in Omaha entitled “Negro Troops in France.”
In Lincoln, Du Bois told his audience of the shameful memo sent by Colonel J.L.A. Linard at AEF headquarters to the French commander when the black “buffalo soldiers” of the 92nd Infantry Division became part of the French army. Linard told the French commander that “neither he nor his men must become too familiar with the negro troopers. They should be made to know their place as members of an inferior race; they should not be permitted to sit at the same table and the white soldiers should not demean themselves by shaking hands with them.” The French commander tore up the memo.
In Omaha, he mentioned a saying among black soldiers: “It isn’t the barrage ahead we fear; it’s the barrage of prejudice behind us.”
Although the Harlem Hellfighters marched down Fifth Avenue as part of the victory parade in New York, the moment was short-lived. The slaughter of blacks in the Red Summer of 1919 marked the worst form of racial strife this the nation has ever seen.
A century later, the Charlottesville riots showed there is still a mother lode of white supremacy, racism and bigotry in the land.
It is crucial today that we stand together – all of us – for equality, democracy and social justice to eliminate that barrage of prejudice.
Frank Edler, Lincoln