In the spring of 1930, a generation before the civil rights movement challenged the conscience of white America, a small group of mostly old, poor and uneducated black women staged a protest. They are not remembered today; their names do not grace civil rights memorials, they are not revered as pioneers of the movement. Yet their sacrifice was unmistakable.
Their sons and husbands had been killed in World War I and were buried in Europe, black soldiers alongside white, in new cemeteries honoring those who died before the Great War ended in 1918. A decade later, as memories of the war faded, the U.S. government offered to send the mothers and widows overseas, all expenses paid, to visit the graves.
With one caveat. The trips would be segregated, with white women given higher classes of transportation and lodging, an arrangement sadly not that unusual in the America of that era. Most black women went, many of them grudgingly overlooking the racial unfairness. But 23 refused. They wouldn’t tolerate such conditions to visit the resting place of sons and husbands who had made the same sacrifice as whites. Those 17 mothers and six widows, most of whom rarely traveled far from their hometowns, passed up the trip of a lifetime.
White House internal memos show that President Herbert Hoover and his fellow Republicans were well aware of the risks involved in insisting upon segregating the travelers. The party of Lincoln had enjoyed blanket support from blacks for scores of years after the Civil War, but that support eroded under successive Republican administrations in the 1920s. Fearful of the fallout if the European trips erupted in controversy, the Hoover administration considered a number of ruses to shift the blame. Hoover himself favored announcing that the white women refused to travel with the blacks.
It didn’t work. The issue did boil up, despite the party’s efforts to contain it. Two years later, black voters, smarting from that and other grievances, would swing to the Democratic Party for the first time, helping to elect President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
The several hundred black women who did travel to the cemeteries went aboard cargo ships, stayed at the YWCA or second-class hotels, and were fed fried chicken and watermelon to make them “feel at home.” While many harbored resentment that white women sailed on luxury liners and stayed at five-star hotels, they still felt compelled to visit the graves.
Among those who refused was Doshia Stevens of Youngstown, Ohio. Her husband, infantry Pvt. John Stevens, had died in a French hospital. She desperately wanted to see his grave, and initially agreed to go. But in July 1930, she wrote a one-sentence letter to Washington D.C. “Dear Sir, I am sorry to say but I am canceling my reservation because of discrimination.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was still an infant. The protest by Stevens and the others seems tame compared to the civil rights demonstrations he would help lead three decades later, when protesters were beaten, set upon by dogs and even murdered. Yet the action by these women did plant a seed, giving others the confidence to challenge racism.
“No, I do not care to go,” the widow Gladys M. Mayo of New York wrote in her letter to Washington. “It is not what I thought it would be. I do not know what segregation is.”
When Quentin Roosevelt was shot down over German lines during the war, his grieving parents, former president and first lady Theodore and Edith Roosevelt, asked that their youngest son be buried at the spot where his plane crashed in occupied France. “We feel that where the tree falls, there let it lie,” the former president said.
World War I was the first time that American soldiers were killed in great numbers overseas, and by the 1920s, the government allowed their survivors three choices: a burial at the site, such as the Roosevelts had done, having the bodies of their loved returned to the States, or having them collected in one of several new commemorative cemeteries being designed in Europe.
Some 78,000 members of the American Expeditionary Force lost their lives in the war, and a majority of their families had their bodies brought home. Only 128 left them where they died. The remainder, about 30,000, were gathered from the battlefields of the Marne and the Argonne and reburied in six cemeteries in France, one in England and one in Belgium.
In 1928, a new organization called the Gold Star Mothers began pressing for government-sponsored trips to the European cemeteries. As women whose hearts were broken by war, they emerged as a powerful political lobby. “I have received hundreds of letters from all over the country from these poor mothers, begging for that opportunity,” one of their leaders, Mathilda Burling, implored the War Department. “It must be a pilgrimage Holy and Honorable, only fitting to 100% American ideals. There are no patriotic ideals in the whole world greater than American ideals.”
The following year, as Hoover moved into the White House, Congress approved the provisions for the “Pilgrimage of Mothers and Widows to the Cemeteries in Europe.” The new War Department set to work lining up hotels, cruise ships and other accommodations. Washington determined that 17,389 women were entitled to go. By the time the various trips were concluded over the next several years, 6,693 had toured the European cemeteries.
Of those eligible to go, 624 were black. In segregated America, the “colored question” immediately raised its head. How to accommodate both white and black women?
Most of the black soldiers and sailors had worked as support staff. They were not felled by enemy bullets; rather, most had been cut down by pneumonia and other ailments. White America believed the black man was unfit to fight.
Retired Army Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, one of the war’s most distinguished American officers, a white man from Alabama, publicly criticized a black division under his command that he said twice had turned tail in the face of the enemy. “They are really inferior soldiers,” the general complained.
Hoover and his Republicans saw no reason to disturb the status quo. Segregation was still the way of American life; the times in which they lived called for two distinct and separate classes. It was worth the risk to snub the black voters who had supported the GOP for so long. But to alienate the vast white electorate, at a time when the party was trying to woo Southerners and conservatives, could spell political ruin.
Jim Crow would sail to Europe.
From the start, the administration insisted that both races would be treated in a “like” manner. But then they announced that black women venturing to New York to set sail for Europe would stay at the YWCA in Harlem or other hotels in that black community, while whites would be put up at the Hotel Astor and other fancy hotels. White women would be assigned to cruise ships, while blacks would be on commercial steamers.
In February 1930, four months before the first white ship set sail, Maurice Spencer, president of the National Equal Rights League and Race Congress in Washington, wrote to George Akerson, secretary to the president, decrying the planned segregation. “‘It inferentially reduces Americans of color,” he warned.
A letter sent to Washington by a black man, signed simply an “ex-soldier,” said that “we as a race have enough grief cast upon our weary shoulders” and asked, “why is it you wish to cast a greater shadow of sorrow and insult upon us by segregation of our beloved Gold Star mothers?”
Much of the planning was supervised by Maj. Gen. J.L. DeWitt, the quartermaster general. (A decade later he would spearhead the internment of Japanese Americans in camps in California during World War II.) The government’s typical response was one sent to a black veterans group in Muskogee, Okla. “It is essential that the groups be organized in such a way as will permit the women to become acquainted and form friendships which will help them to bear the trip to the graves of their sons and husbands,” wrote Capt. A.D. Hughes, a subordinate to Gen. DeWitt. ". . . .This was the controlling reason for deciding to organize separate groups of colored women.” War Department officials presented Hoover with a list of troubling issues. “Who in the group will give consent to mix in with whites, or vice versa?. . .The steamship company will probably decline to take them, or at least segregate the colored . . . . White hotels will not take the colored mothers and widows . . . .”
On April 29, according to DeWitt’s diary, the president was searching for a way out of the dilemma, and he came up with a plan to lay the blame on the white women. “The president’s thoughts are that invitations could be sent out to the . . . white women . . . offering them the choice of two ships, one of which would be the vessel that was to carry the colored mothers,” DeWitt wrote. “His feeling being that the white women would all select the boat other than that one which the colored women would be sent, thereby themselves making the decision rather than leaving it up to the Secretary of War.” DeWitt, however, had concerns that “it would probably create greater political reaction against that method than from the way we are handling it. I believe that intelligent white women who received such an invitation would feel . . . it more or less an insult. And the reaction would be worse politically than the present reaction was.” The idea died.
As an alternative, DeWitt noted that blame could be placed at the hotels and cruise lines, which refused to take blacks. Their policies were “in strict accordance with the law” of that time; they could not be forced to integrate. He then offered a ruse of his own: make sure the first entourage of black women is treated well, then get them to encourage any black protesters to drop their objections.
On May 14, the War Department finalized its decision for separate trips. On May 26, the prostests began. The NAACP presented Hoover with petitions bearing 56 signatures from around the country.
“As a Gold Star Mother who happens to be colored I wish to protest against the gratuitous insult . . . .” the petitions began. They concluded: “If you as president of the United States refuse to abolish this ruling, we respectfully decline to make the trip to France, preferring instead to remain at home and retain our honor and self-respect.” James Weldon Johnson, a preeminent black poet, wrote one of his most famous works about the horror for white America if it turned out that the remains of the unknown soldier at Arlington Cemetery was a black man. The poem, he said, was “written while meditating upon heaven and hell and democracy and war and America and the negro Gold Star Mothers.” The New York Amsterdam News, one of the country’s largest black publications, carried its own poem, “In Flanders Fields.” It mourned that dead black soldiers now “can never sleep--ingratitude has made it so.” At the White House, hundreds of postcards from blacks and whites poured in, protesting the separate voyages. Other voices were heard too. W.E.B. DuBois warned that black voters were being tempted to switch to the Democrats. “Black hands buried the putrid bodies of white American soldiers in France,” wrote DuBois, declining to hide his anger. And yet “black mothers cannot go with white mothers to look at their graves.”
The president’s inner circle fretted. In a confidential memo, F. Trubee Davison, acting secretary of war, suggested backing up the administration’s idea of blaming others. “Under the circumstances we could state that the railroads and steamship lines themselves were compelling the segregation,” he wrote. Several of the major cruise lines were balking at taking on a mix of black and white passengers, fearful they would lose business. The Cunard Line, the Anchor Line, and the North German Lloyd company advised the War Department that they suddenly were too booked to make any extra excursions with mixed-race passengers.
So the administration announced that commercial steamers, or “cargo ships” as they were derided, would ferry the black women. To carry the segregation even further, they assigned Col. Benjamin Davis, the highest-ranking black officer in the Army, to accompany them as their host.
On Memorial Day weekend, Walter White, acting secretary of the NAACP, held a press conference in New York just as the first ship of white women was clearing the harbor there. The next day, he staged another press conference at the capital in Washington. He said the association had written all 624 black women entitled to go to Europe, and had received protest petitions with signatures from 56. The press conferences drew little ink in the white papers.
The War Department released its own press rebuttal, saying the women were being segregated out of the “most careful consideration of the interests of the pilgrims themselves. No discrimination whatever will be made as between the various groups. Each group will receive equal accommodations, care and consideration.” The government clearly felt it had the upper hand. In a memo to DeWitt, his assistant, Col. W.R. Gibson, noted smugly: “It is a known fact that these colored women are below the average in intelligence and it is my opinion that many of them have signed this letter without intending to decline the invitation to make the pilgrimage.” About the second part, sadly, he was right.
The first steamer to carry black women left New York in July of 1930, 58 mothers and widows aboard the American Merchant. DeWitt had written to Col. Richard T. Ellis, his subordinate handling arrangements in France, to say that it was important to treat the black mothers “with the utmost care and circumspection while in Europe. Be certain that no complaint can be made that we did not show the colored mothers and widows the same deferential treatment that has been shown all the other groups. I know you will do this. But in view of the very delicate situation here [in Washington], I felt that I must bring the subject to your personal attention.”
Ellis replied from Paris that “we have some inkling of the agitation which has been going on in the United States.” He noted that because of the potential for “political and other troubles” for the Republican Party, he would do everything he could to make sure the black mothers enjoyed their visits. “In fact,” he told DeWitt, “we are prepared to bend backward in our efforts to do even more for them than the white pilgrims, if such a thing is possible.” The War Department staged an elaborate going-away ceremony at City Hall and escorted the ladies to the water’s edge. Much to the government’s delight, the white press described the gratitude of the black women. The Washington Post, for instance, said Mrs. Mamie Sills of Omaha and Mrs. Annie Bowie of Los Angeles were gushing as they prepared to sail. “Was the color line drawed (sic) when they put us all on one boat?” said Mrs. Sills. “The color line was drawed when God made the world. I thank the Lord for enabling me to get this far on the trip.” “Amen!” replied Mrs. Bowie.
In Paris, the women were equally effusive. “Ever since I lost my son in 1918, I have been wanting to come,” one woman was quoted saying. “I would have come over in a cattle boat. I would have swam over if possible. I love my race as strongly as any other, but when I heard that the United States was going to send us over I could not refuse.” The Paris papers carried stories and pictures. The theaters ran newsreels, both silent and talking, of the curiosity--to the French--of seeing such a large, segregated group of black women touring French soil, following in the steps of their white counterparts, weeping at the American cemeteries and laying a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe.
American papers picked up similar stories. When the women arrived in France, they were met by a black band and asked to sing spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” They were treated to “racy” shows in the Paris nightclubs, such as a performance by Josephine Baker, a risque black American singer whom the tour sponsors assumed the women would enjoy.
Then, “on Aug. 1 comes the biggest event of all, when they will sit down to a real fried chicken dinner, with all the fixings,” announced the Chicago Tribune’s Paris edition. “For the occasion, a whole car loaded with pasteques, better known to Americans as watermelon, has been ordered from Algeria.” Army Maj. B.F. Cheatham accompanied the mothers back to America, and was “the only white passenger on the ship,” he noted in his report. The women, Cheatham said, were so grateful for everything, “including the separate trip for them, and were most appreciative of the work done by the War Department.” Surely the president and his fellow Republicans had silenced the protest.
As the trips continued, the government kept sending invitations to the protesters. Eventually, all but 23 of them made the journey. Among those who did not was Mrs. Emma Houston of Philadelphia, who lost her son, Leopold, a private in a provost company. She was immensely proud, she said, that he “gave his life in defence (sic) of American democracy.
“Answering the draft on the verge of his graduation at Union College,” she added in a letter to the War Department, “actually enlisting on July 1, 1918, and rushed through preliminary preparation for overseas service, he fell a victim of the ‘flu’ Oct. 18, 1918, and his body is buried at Brest, France.
“Surely our great president, himself a father and a patriot, who is the supreme head of the army, together with enlightened public opinion, will not suffer this order of the War Department to stand.” For the 33 others who initially protested, continuing to say no proved terribly difficult. They broke down and went to Europe, and fell neatly into the Hoover administration’s public relations ploy.
Mrs. Henrietta Haynes of Lyons, Ga., the mother of Pvt. Will Banks, received a letter in October 1930 from Mrs. Willie Rush of Atlanta, who had gone with the first contingent of black mothers. Mrs. Haynes was so impressed by Mrs. Rush’s account that she wrote back to her saying that “if it is God’s will, I am going to take the trip next year.” She soon found herself kneeling at her son’s grave.
Mrs. Rosana Hampton of St. Matthews, S.C., the mother of infantry Pvt. Lucius Hampton, another victim of pneumonia, also gave in. Once home, she sent her own letters praising the program. “I am all ways (sic) talk (sic) and telling my friends about it. I am willing to get on the stand at any time and give a talk because they are so true and kind.” Still others, like Mrs. Clifford Jones of Waynesboro, Ga., fretted over what to do. Her husband, Lewis, a private in an Army engineering company, had died of bronchial pneumonia, and she missed him dearly.
In one of her first letters to Washington, she said she “would rather stay at home” than take a segregated trip. “I can mourn the loss of him believing that he died for a noble cause and people. Should I go over segregated, I would be forced to feel that those of our Negro race who died are not appreciated as much as our white brothers.” In a subsequent letter, her resolve seemed to soften. “We surely cannot feel as welcome to the invitation as do those who have first choice in this great trip,” she wrote.
Then she wrote government officials that if they could allow her the dignity of traveling with a white woman, “I would be too happy to join the entire body of American widows and mothers to see the burial place of our sons and husbands.” The government never budged. Mrs. Jones gave in, and she sailed on one of the last voyages, a ship for black women only.
Some white women defended the segregation. An American Legion post auxiliary in Savannah, Ga., for instance, telegrammed the White House “to thank the president for his action . . . in spite of the attitude taken by the negro Gold Star Mothers.”
Marvin Fletcher, a history professor at Ohio University, has researched the politics of the pilgrimages and found it was instrumental in persuading black voters to embrace the Democratic Party. There were other issues too, of course, such as the Depression and the president’s ill-fated attempt to name a Southern segregationist to the Supreme Court. But Fletcher said that embarrassing black mothers and widows “was just what the Democrats needed to put an end to the 60-year alliance between the Republican Party and African American voters” that dated to the Civil War.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Frank Allen, a white Republican, warned Hoover that disregarding black women was “ill-advised, unfair and contrary to the ideals of our American government.” The Nation magazine editorialized that “surely there was no time in the history of our country when segregation was less necessary and more cruel.” In Congress, Rep. Oscar DePriest, a black Republican from Illinois, called the plan “un-American.” In Chicago, Tom Canty, a black leader allied with Hoover, predicted political disaster. “We all make mistakes. We will all agree to that,” he telegrammed the White House. “But the person who discriminated against the colored Gold Star Mothers pulled the worst boner contributing to the ever-increasing unpopularity of your administration . . . . It will take some hocus pocus, raised to the nth power, to repopularize Mr. Hoover with our people in the Middle West.”
DuBois, one of the country’s most respected black leaders, a man who alone could sway black opinion, wasted little time encouraging his followers to abandon the GOP. “No one in our day has helped race hatred more than Herbert Hoover by his Lily-White policy,” he wrote. Nor did DuBois stop there. In a scathing article in “The Crisis,” the official voice of the NAACP, he printed a large photograph of the first group of black women attending the City Hall ceremony in New York. Under the caption, “Black and Gold Star Mothers,” he attacked the women for surrendering their dignity and traveling aboard Jim Crow ships.
“These are the ones that caused all the difficulty,” he said of the women, pictured in bright summer dresses and waving American flags. “These are the mothers of sons murdered at their country’s command, and sent to the graves in Europe segregated on a freight boat, lest they contaminate their fellow men. By order of President Hoover.” Several prominent members of the Republican National Committee publicly expressed doubts about Hoover’s reelection. The Chicago Defender, another black publication, noted that Hoover had not made a single move to integrate the black women. Now, the paper said, “it remains with us to do the moving . . . . Just watch November 1932.” Anger ran deep, especially when there appeared a political flier, mailed to black voters with a cartoon depicting a commercial steamer: “LEST WE FORGET: Cattle ships for our mothers who gave their sons.” Hoover was defeated. And 23 proud women stayed home.
“I received your letter and also previously received one sent me by the Gold Star Mothers,” Mrs. Grace Taylor of Cambridge, Mass., the war widow of Isaac W. Taylor, wrote to Washington in February 1931. She was responding to yet another request that she change her mind and comply with a segregated America. Once again she said no. And no it would forever be.
“I wish to say right here that I need no urging from anyone pertaining to making the pilgrimage to France, as my mind was completely settled when I canceled my invitation last summer. I am a Massachusetts born woman and my parents before me and I strongly resent any such stand as the United States government has taken and I feel that they have grossly insulted our race. . .” She added one final line: “They can never make amends.”