No Negroes Allowed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In every American war, African Americans have served with distinction, even while often facing racism from their fellow countrymen. World War I was no different, and two black women working for the YMCA recorded the experience of black soldiers in France during that conflict. While their account certainly showcased the far-too-common discrimination faced by African Americans among American troops at that time, it also revealed the significant amount of black resistance to such treatment as well as the positive experiences black Americans gained while overseas, when French citizens and soldiers treated them well. Amid the larger context of simultaneous racism at the front, race riots in American cities, the Great Migration of black families to northern urban centers, and black cultural resurgence in the Harlem Renaissance, Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson’s writing sheds light on portions of the long and complicated history of African Americans in uniform.

Summary Overview

In every American war, African Americans have served with distinction, even while often facing racism from their fellow countrymen. World War I was no different, and two black women working for the YMCA recorded the experience of black soldiers in France during that conflict. While their account certainly showcased the far-too-common discrimination faced by African Americans among American troops at that time, it also revealed the significant amount of black resistance to such treatment as well as the positive experiences black Americans gained while overseas, when French citizens and soldiers treated them well. Amid the larger context of simultaneous racism at the front, race riots in American cities, the Great Migration of black families to northern urban centers, and black cultural resurgence in the Harlem Renaissance, Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson’s writing sheds light on portions of the long and complicated history of African Americans in uniform.

Defining Moment

During World War I, approximately 380,000 African American men joined the US armed forces. While only a fraction fought on the front lines, those who did often performed very well. As historians Darlene Hine, William Hine, and Stanley Harold note, “By June 1918, French commanders were asking for all the black troops the Americans could send” (381, 383). Yet, as described in the document reprinted below, African Americans often faced severe discrimination by white Americans, both during the war and even while the nation was celebrating the end of the conflict. Most black soldiers were prohibited from participating in victory celebrations in the United States, even though they had fought and died for the country.

There would, however, be a revival of black demands for political and social equality during and after the war, in part owing to the new experiences encountered and the patriotic service given by hundreds of thousands of African Americans. Unfortunately, white reaction to a renewed black assertiveness was often brutal. Even before the United States entered the war in 1917, there were large-scale racial conflicts in East St. Louis and Houston. Then, in Chicago and Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919; in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921; and in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923, hundreds of African Americans and dozens of whites died amid severe racial clashes. It was no wonder, therefore, that the Great Migration of African Americans, which had begun before the war, intensified during and after the conflict. Before the next world war had begun, almost two million black Americans moved north in search of industrial jobs and more freedom in manufacturing hubs, such as Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland as well as in cities in the northeast. Authors Johnson and Hunton, then, were writing at a time when war was occurring, but also when increasing violence against African Americans and mass movements of people were beginning to alter the shape of American cities and society in general.

Author Biography

Kathryn Johnson was a well-educated teacher and a member of the NAACP before she joined the YMCA. Addie Hunton had likewise received a formal education, and she was active in the YMCA, the YWCA, and the NACCP as well. She was married to Alpheaus W. Hunton, a prominent African American activist who would grow increasingly radical in his views, and they both became involved in the Pan-African movement of the interwar years. As one of Johnson’s biographers notes, the two traveled to France at the behest of the YMCA to chronicle the experiences of black soldiers and female workers. They published their findings in 1920 as Two Colored Women with the Expeditionary Forces. The two were certainly some of the most capable women at the time to undertake such an endeavor, given their well-established history of working on behalf of African American rights. Hunton died in 1943 and Johnson in 1955.

Document Analysis

The authors spell out several instances of racism that they either heard about or encountered directly. Their account describes episodes when African Americans actively fought back against the conditions in which they found themselves, and also hints at the impact of French friendliness with black soldiers. While some white enlisted men and officers–the band leader for instance–endeavor to give African Americans equal treatment, it was then far too common for black soldiers to experience racism. Preventing blacks from listening to a band (which, ironically, had black members in it), from staying in one of the canteens where soldiers gathered to relax, or from entering YMCA huts all demonstrate the expansive racism of white soldiers and officers during World War I. Such men, as the authors note, “brought their native prejudices with them.” While, occasionally, such discrimination was prevented or stopped, there was certainly no overarching effort by the armed forces to end it.

African Americans, however, increasingly would not simply remain silent when faced with racism. Just as the later experiences of black soldiers in World War II would help stimulate the Civil Rights movement, some black members of the armed forces in 1917 and 1918 had begun to assert their right to equal treatment. Johnson and Hunton note that an entire group of black soldiers protested their bad accommodations on a ship by exiting en masse and were able to obtain their goal of better conditions. Another attempt was made to redress the housing of female African American workers in a part of another ship that was certainly undesirable and perhaps even unsafe. While this second episode did not result in equal treatment, it also revealed that a number of African Americans were no longer willing to stand by and be treated in such ways. They believed that their service to their country, whether in combat or in supporting roles, proved their patriotism and they deserved equal treatment accordingly. Such newly assertive ideas stemmed in part from the encounters between African Americans and French citizens during the war. Often for the first time, black soldiers and workers encountered whites who treated them equally, unlike even fellow white Americans in uniform. The knowledge of such better treatment was so widespread that, as the authors note, the answer to the protest of bad conditions for African American women was that “the colored people need not expect any such treatment as had been given them by the French.”

Essential Themes

In the aftermath of both World War I and World War II, African Americans became more assertive regarding their equal rights. While the post-1945 Civil Rights movement is better known and, of course, more significant in its long-term results, the immediate post-World War I period also saw an upswing in African American activity in support of equality. Hundreds of thousands of black men, and thousands of black women as well, enjoyed new experiences abroad; as a result, their views about the world and the possibility of speaking up or organizing on their own behalf expanded. The relatively better treatment that French whites accorded black American soldiers and workers also showed that white racist attitudes in the United States were not the norm and could be changed for the better.

The black experience in World War I helped to produce one of the most important cultural movements in the African American community during the interwar period, the Harlem Renaissance. An explosion of art, music, and confidence among African Americans occurred, fed in part by a newfound sense of having served the nation and, therefore, being entitled to an assertion of their own culture and rights. Racism was certainly something that blacks experienced during World War I, but they also found a renewed confidence to pressure the United States to live up to its ideals of equality and freedom. As after previous wars, such as the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and as after World War II, black military service provided a basis for increased black activism and black demands for basic equality.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Barbeau, Arthur E., and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers: African American Troops in World War I, reprint ed. New York: DaCapo, 1996.
  • Curry, Andrew. “Johnson, Kathryn Magnolia (1878–1955).” Blackpast.org: Remembered & Reclaimed. Blackpast.org, n.d. Web. 19 June 2014.
  • Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. The African-American Odyssey: Media Research Update, combined vol., 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2005. Print.
  • Quintana, Maria L. “Hunton, Addie Waites (1866–1943).” Blackpast.org: Remembered & Reclaimed. Blackpast.org, n.d. Web. 19 June 2014.
  • Williams, Chad. Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2010. Print.
Categories: History Content