The failure of Roosevelt and Taft to significantly improve the status of Blacks in federal employment was surpassed by Woodrow Wilson’s calculated endorsement of discrimination. Although he had campaigned on a platform of fair treatment to all, upon election he quickly moved to replace most of Taft’s Black appointees with whites and to condone policies of segregation which wiped out years of Black progress.

     With the coming of World War I, Wilson sought, ostensibly, to make the world safe for democracy. At home he sought to continue the plague of racism endorsed by the Supreme Court in 1896. The failure of our society to live up to the ideals of its constitution was especially pronounced in the nation’s capital, a city long known for its relatively well-educated and economically sound Black community. For Blacks, there was not even the facade of equality. They were unable to overcome racism and the lack of opportunity no matter how well-prepared they had been made by their exemplary educational institutions. It was clear that W.E.B. DuBois was quite right in defining the problem of the twentieth century as color consciousness. The war found hundreds of Washington’s Black soldiers segregated from American armed forces, while fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the French and winning many of that nation’s highest military decorations. Howard University was instrumental in the establishment at Des Moines, Iowa of an officer training camp for Blacks that included a number of the city’s able soldiers, who went on to lead and to serve with distinction. The war would also change forever the ways in which many Blacks would respond to the racism which characterized their lives.

     The year 1919 witnessed a period in America of violent racial discord which came to be known as the Red Summer. Exaggerated reports by the city’s white press, including the Post, Evening Star, Times Herald, created a climate of disorder among the thousands of white troops still stationed in Washington. Among the factors contributing to racial tension experienced by Blacks was the failure of the city to include the city’s heralded Black battalion in the local victory parade. In July of that year, two Black men allegedly attempted to take an umbrella from a white woman. Her Navy husband then assembled an unruly mob of sailors and marines armed with clubs and guns which then proceeded to attack indiscriminately any Blacks the mob encountered. Many of the city’s Black servicemen helped form the core of resistance to this unprovoked white violence and responded with armed violence of their own. Several factors, not the least of which was militant Black resistance to white violence, contributed to Black citizens not being totally victimized by the white community. Ironically, though not surprisingly, the great majority of people arrested were Black, despite the riots having been provoked and started by whites.


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November 2000