World War I created a transformation for African Americans from the “old” to the “new.” Thousands moved from the rural South to the industrial urban North, pursuing a new vision of social and economic opportunity. During the war black troops fought abroad “to keep the world safe for democracy.” They returned home determined to achieve a fuller participation in American society. The philosophy of the civil rights movement shifted from the “accommodationist” approach of Booker T. Washington to the militant advocacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. These forces converged to help create the “New Negro Movement” of the 1920s, which promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics.
Evoking the “New Negro,” the NAACP lobbied aggressively for the passage of a federal law that would prohibit lynching. The NAACP played a crucial role in the flowering of the Negro Renaissance centered in New York’s Harlem, the cultural component of the New Negro Movement. NAACP officials W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Jessie Fauset provided aesthetic guidance, financial support, and literature to this cultural awakening. The NAACP’s efforts on the international front included sending James Weldon Johnson to Haiti to investigate the occupation of U.S. Armed Forces there. In the courts the NAACP prosecuted cases involving disenfranchisement, segregation ordinances, restrictive covenants, and lack of due process and equal protection in criminal cases.
1918 Anti-Lynching Bill
In this letter, Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer (R-Missouri) invites the NAACP to support a new federal anti-lynching bill. Dyer, who served a largely black constituency in St. Louis, had tried to advance a bill in Congress since 1911. He was reinvigorated by the testimonies of the many survivors of the 1917 East St. Louis riot who relocated to his district. Dyer also asks NAACP Secretary John Shillady for recent data on lynchings that he might include in a speech. His request led to the publication of Thirty Years of Lynching, 1889–1918 a year later.
A Federal law against Lynchings
In April 1918, Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer (R-Missouri) introduced an anti-lynching bill in the House of Representatives, based on a bill drafted by NAACP founder Albert E. Pillsbury in 1901. The bill called for the prosecution of lynchers in federal court. State officials who failed to protect lynching victims or prosecute lynchers could face five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The victim’s heirs could recover up to $10,000 from the county where the crime occurred. After a prolonged fight, the House passed the Dyer Bill on January 26, 1922 by a vote of 230 to 119, but a filibuster by Southern Democrats defeated the bill in the Senate.
African American Soldiers in World War I
During World War I, African-American soldiers faced discrimination despite their service. Conceding that the government would not admit blacks to white training camps, the NAACP supported Joel Spingarn’s 1917 call for a segregated officers’ training camp. The War Department established a separate camp in Des Moines, Iowa, and Spingarn helped recruit the 1,250 enrollees, mostly college students or graduates. But treatment of black trainees was deplorable, and after basic training, most black servicemen were assigned to labor units. Lt. Colonel Charles Young, the highest-ranking black officer at the start of World War I, was retired under protest to prevent him having a command in Europe; the NAACP successfully fought for his reinstatement. W.E.B. Du Bois investigated the treatment of black troops in France in 1919. This issue of The Crisis is devoted to the Negro soldier and features articles about black soldiers.
NAACP Women Aid the American Expeditionary Forces
Kathryn Magnolia Johnson (1878–1955), a high school teacher, worked for the NAACP as a field agent from 1913 to 1916, establishing branches in the Midwest and South. Addie Waites Hunton (1866–1943), a fellow teacher, worked as a NAACP field organizer from 1921 to 1924 and helped arrange the 1927 Pan-African Congress. In 1918 Johnson and Hunton sailed for France as YMCA workers to aid black troops. They wrote about their experience in this book, Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces.
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was born into a middle-class Bahamian family in Jacksonville, Florida, and educated at Atlanta University. He began his multifaceted career in Jacksonville as a public school principal, lawyer, and newspaper publisher. In 1901 he moved to New York to become the songwriting partner of his brother Rosamond (1873–1954). From 1906 to 1912, he served as U.S. Counsel of Venezuela and Nicaragua on the recommendation of Booker T. Washington, and in 1914 he became an editor of Washington’s New York Age. His association with the NAACP began in 1916 and lasted until 1931. As field secretary, Johnson organized new NAACP branches across the South. His hiring as secretary in 1920 signaled the rise of black leadership in the NAACP. Johnson resigned in 1931 to teach creative writing at Fisk University.
Walter White (1893–1955) was reared and educated among Atlanta’s black middle class. After graduating from college in 1916, he became an insurance salesman and secretary of the local NAACP branch. In 1918 the NAACP hired White as assistant secretary at the national office on the recommendation of his mentor James Weldon Johnson. White won international acclaim for his crusade against mob violence, personally investigating 41 lynchings and 8 race riots. In 1931 he succeeded Johnson as NAACP executive secretary. The NAACP under his leadership focused attention on the horrors of lynching and pressed relentlessly to end segregation in education and travel. A prolific author, White wrote six books and numerous articles. He also wrote weekly newspaper columns and hosted a radio program.
Director of Branches Robert W. Bagnall
Robert Bagnall (1883–1943), a second generation Episcopal priest, was born in Norfolk, Virginia. Like his father, he attended Bishop Payne Divinity School in nearby Petersburg. In 1911 he became rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. As a founder of the Detroit NAACP he led successful campaigns against school segregation, police brutality, and discrimination at the Ford Motor Company. He was made NAACP district organizer of the Great Lakes region in 1918 and promoted to director of branches in 1919. Bagnall traveled across the country to NAACP branches raising funds for the national office. Under his leadership, the branch department became the NAACP’s backbone. In 1931 the NAACP dismissed him because of declining revenue. The following year Bagnall returned to the ministry as rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where he served until his death in 1943.
Field Secretary William Pickens
William Pickens (1881–1954), a founding member of the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, was the son of South Carolina sharecroppers. Bright and ambitious, he excelled at Talladega College and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1904. For sixteen years he worked as a professor and academic administrator. While teaching at Morgan College, he helped Joel Spingarn organize the Louisville branch of the NAACP and prepare the case Buchannan v. Warley, which concerned residential segregation. He left academia in 1920 to succeed James Weldon Johnson as NAACP field secretary. In this capacity, he recruited new members and established new branches. As a contributing editor of the Associated Negro Press, the largest black news syndicate, Pickens helped publicize NAACP activities in his weekly articles that appeared in more than 100 newspapers. During his tenure (1920–1942) the number of NAACP branches grew to more than 350.
The NAACP Flag
In conjunction with the anti-lynching campaign, in 1920 the NAACP began flying a flag from the windows of its headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue when a lynching occurred. The words on the flag were “a man was lynched yesterday.” The threat of losing its lease forced the NAACP to discontinue the practice in 1938. The original canvas flag is housed with the NAACP Records in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
U.S. Occupation in Haiti, 1915
In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to occupy Haiti following a coup d’état. Stirred by reports of widespread atrocities related to the American occupation, in March 1920 the NAACP sent James Weldon Johnson to Haiti for six weeks to investigate. Johnson exposed the abuses he found in a series of articles for The Nation, which roused international attention and led to the abatement of the worst excesses. He also briefed Warren G. Harding, the Republican presidential candidate, who used the issue to defeat Democratic candidate James Cox. When Harding became president he ordered a special Senate investigation. The NAACP pressed for the restoration of full Haitian sovereignty. The U.S. finally withdrew from Haiti in 1934.
Born in Jamaica, Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) moved to New York in 1917 to organize the American branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the largest black mass movement. His defiant black nationalism, which stressed self-help and entrepreneurship, coupled with his flair for pageantry galvanized thousands of working class urban blacks. Garvey also founded the Negro Factories Corporation and the Black Star Steamship Line. Financial mismanagement of these organizations led to his indictment on mail fraud charges in 1922. He was convicted and sentenced to Atlanta’s federal penitentiary in 1925. After his release in 1927, he was deported to Jamaica.
Interference with the Universal Negro Improvement Association
The NAACP vied with the UNIA for the support of the black masses. The competition was exacerbated by Marcus Garvey’s personal conflicts with W.E.B. Du Bois and other NAACP officials and mutual accusations of wrongdoing. In January 1922, Marcus Garvey was arrested on mail fraud charges regarding the sale of Black Star Line stock.
In his newspaper the Negro World, Garvey blamed “All the troubles on certain organizations calling themselves Negro Advancement Associations.” He accused them of sabotaging the ships “to bring about the downfall” of the UNIA. James Weldon Johnson asserted that “such a statement applied to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People could be characterized only as a malicious falsehood of the most contemptible sort.” In this letter Garvey responds to Johnson’s demand for a retraction.
The Arkansas Cases
In October 1919 bloody riots erupted near Elaine, Arkansas, after a white mob attacked a mass meeting of black farmers for trying to organize a union. As many as two-hundred blacks and twenty whites were killed. The black defendants were tried by an all-white jury. Twelve were sentenced to death and sixty-seven to long prison terms. The NAACP appealed the convictions to the Supreme Court. In 1923 the Supreme Court overturned the convictions in Moore v. Dempsey, ruling that the defendants’ mob-dominated trials were a violation of the due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The landmark decision reversed the court’s previous ruling in the 1915 case of Leo Frank, who was convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee of the Atlanta pencil factory that he managed. Later, Frank’s death sentence was commuted by Georgia’s governor, which led a mob of angry citizens to storm the prison where Frank was being held and lynch him. As a result of the Moore ruling, Frank’s grateful lawyer, Louis Marshall, joined the NAACP’s legal committee.
The Crisis Magazine
The NAACP established The Crisis in 1910 to provide a monthly magazine for its members. Under the editorship of W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis became the premier outlet for black writers and artists. Like the National Urban League’s magazine Opportunity, it sponsored an annual literary contest offering cash prizes. The Amy Spingarn Contest in Literature and Art was funded by Joel Spingarn and his wife Amy between 1925 and1928. In 1930 The Crisis announced the creation of the Du Bois literary prize, funded by Louise Mathews. The cover illustration, shown here, by Laura Wheeler Waring reflects the interest in African themes and aesthetics popular during the Harlem Renaissance.
Writer Jessie Fauset
Investigation of a Lynching
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Walter White’s field notes and report concerning the lynching of Sammie Smith in Nashville, Tennessee, . Typescript and autograph manuscript. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8 - Page 9 - Page 10. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (053.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
Digital ID # na0053p1
Walter White’s field notes and report concerning the lynching of Sammie Smith in Nashville, Tennessee, . Typescript and autograph manuscript. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (053.01.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
Digital ID # na0053_01p5
NAACP Defends Soldiers of the 24th Infantry
Provoked by police brutality, on August 23, 1917, members of the all-black 24th Infantry rioted in Houston, Texas. Sixteen white civilians and four black soldiers were killed. One hundred and eighteen men were court-martialed, and after the trials, nineteen were hanged and eighty-one jailed in Leavenworth, Kansas. The NAACP began a long campaign to win clemency for the imprisoned soldiers. On February 7, 1924, a NAACP delegation led by James Weldon Johnson presented to President Calvin Coolidge a petition of 125,000 signatures asking pardon for the fifty-four men still in prison. As a result, all of the sentences were reduced and twenty men were freed. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the release of the last prisoners in 1938.
NAACP Challenges Laws Barring African Americans from Primaries
Fire in the Flint
In 1924 Walter White published his first novel, Fire in the Flint, the story of an idealistic black physician who is lynched in Georgia. NAACP counsel Louis Marshall asked his son-in-law, philanthropist Jacob Billikop, to help promote the book. In this letter, White thanks Billikop for his assistance and defends the novel’s credibility by recounting eleven lynchings he investigated in Brooks and Lowndes counties, Georgia, in May 1918. Fire in the Flint received mostly favorable reviews and became an international bestseller.
Langston Hughes Requests NAACP Assistance
The Ossian Sweet Case
In September 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet and ten other defendants were tried in Detroit, charged with murder while protecting the Sweet home from a riotous mob. Dr. Sweet and his family had just moved into their newly purchased home in a white neighborhood. The NAACP retained Clarence Darrow as chief attorney. The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second trial resulted in the acquittal of Ossian’s brother, Henry Sweet, against whom the State felt it had the strongest case. All the other cases were dropped. The NAACP used the victory to advance the legal assault against residential segregation.
Criteria for Negro Art
In February 1926 W. E. B. Du Bois sponsored a symposium, “The Negro in Art,” in The Crisis to spark debate about the appropriate course for the arts. He feared that black writers were jeopardizing the civil rights cause by depicting the “Negro underworld” versus the Talented Tenth to appease white patronage. He espoused his own view in this manifesto, in which he insisted that “all art is propaganda”—a tool for race uplift. To illustrate his point, he wrote Dark Princess (1928), a novel about a plot by the darker races to end European imperialism. Du Bois’s substantial writings included five novels, poetry, short stories, and a historical pageant.
James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was a major architect of the Harlem Renaissance, believing that artistic achievement was key to the progress of African Americans. The former diplomat developed alliances with white philanthropists to support the movement. Johnson’s poetry, anthologies, and histories also made him an important contributor to the Renaissance. His most celebrated work, God’s Trombones (1927), a tribute to the “old time Negro preacher,” was inspired by his many visits to churches as an NAACP speaker. Johnson broke new literary ground by avoiding the use of Negro dialect; the book consists of free verse sermons that capture the oratorical style of the folk-preacher in standard English. The first edition was illustrated by the painter Aaron Douglass.
Louis Tompkins Wright
Louis T. Wright (1891–1952), who made significant contributions to clinical research and surgery, fought for racial equality in the medical profession and health care. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1915, he returned to Atlanta to practice medicine and also worked as treasurer of the newly formed NAACP branch led by his friend Walter White. In 1921 he became the first black physician appointed to the staff of a New York municipal hospital, Harlem Hospital, where he served for more than thirty years. In 1928 he became New York’s first black police surgeon and a member of the NAACP board. He was elected the board’s first black chairman and the second black fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1934. Wright was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1940.
NAACP Officials Celebrating Twentieth Anniversary
In 1929, the annual conference of the NAACP convened in Cleveland to mark the association’s twentieth anniversary. The NAACP had much to celebrate. It had launched a successful anti-lynching crusade, won important legal battles, and organized 325 branches across the country. The Crisis, the Association’s official organ, was the leading black periodical with a circulation of more than 100,000. Among the NAACP officials seated in the front row (left to right) are W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis; James Weldon Johnson, NAACP Secretary, 1920–1930; Robert Bagnall, Director of Branches; Daisy Lampkin, Regional Field Secretary; Walter White, Assistant Secretary, 1918–1929; William Pickens, Field Secretary; and Arthur Spingarn, Chairman of the Legal Committee.
NAACP officials at the Twentieth Annual Session of the NAACP in Cleveland, Ohio, June 26, 1929. Photograph. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (066.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
Digital ID # ppmsca-05523