W.E.B. Du Bois and the Legacy — and Betrayal — of Black Soldiers
THE WOUNDED WORLD: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War, by Chad L. Williams
In February 1938, W.E.B. Du Bois celebrated his 70th birthday by attending a convocation in his honor at Spelman College in Atlanta. Wearing his Harvard doctoral regalia, he delivered a speech surveying his life and work as a scholar and activist. As the historian Chad Williams describes in his illuminating new account, Du Bois told the friends and luminaries who had gathered how he was profoundly influenced and troubled by the First World War.
“I felt for a moment during the war that I could be without reservation a patriotic American,” Du Bois said. “I did not believe in war, but I thought that in a fight with America against militarism and for democracy we would be fighting for the emancipation of the Negro race.”
This hope soon gave way to disillusionment. Du Bois traveled to France after the armistice to interview Black troops. “I saw the mud and dirt of the trenches; I heard from the mouths of soldiers the kind of treatment that Black men got in the American army,” he said. “I was convinced and said that American white officers fought more valiantly against Negroes within our ranks than they did against the Germans. I still believe this was largely true.”
Those closest to him knew that for nearly two decades Du Bois had been trying to finish writing a massive history of the war, “The Black Man and the Wounded World.” Williams calls this unfinished project “Du Bois’s most significant work to never reach the public.” His deeply researched, crisply written story is structured around Du Bois’s struggle to finish this manuscript and grapple with the legacy of a war.
Initially, Du Bois was the most prominent Black American to support the war effort. The July 1918 issue of The Crisis, the N.A.A.C.P.’s monthly magazine, featured an editorial by Du Bois titled “Close Ranks.” Despite his earlier blistering critiques of the U.S. government and the colonial policies of England, France and the United States, he encouraged Black citizens to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”
Williams makes a compelling case that “Close Ranks” was the product of both calculation and opportunism. Du Bois feared that the government would use the Sedition Act to shut down The Crisis if censors deemed it insufficiently patriotic. At the same time, Du Bois’s editorial was part of a larger effort, proposed by Du Bois’s friend, benefactor and fellow N.A.A.C.P. leader Joel Spingarn, to offer up The Crisis “as a platform of wartime propaganda” to the War Department. As part of the collaboration, Du Bois applied for a captaincy in the Army’s Military Intelligence Branch.
The plan backfired spectacularly. Although Du Bois was quietly relieved that the War Department scotched his application for a commission, he was stung by the attacks his editorial provoked from Black moderates and radicals. Du Bois had faced his share of criticism over the years, Williams writes, “but never before had he been accused of being a traitor to his people.”
Du Bois held the Black military tradition in high esteem, and the conversations and correspondence between him and Black soldiers and veterans are among the book’s most powerful moments. Weeks after the end of the war, Du Bois was in a Y.M.C.A. hut in Maron, a small town in northeast France, listening to stories from men in the 92nd Division. They described the German machine-gun fire and artillery that left hundreds of men wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. And they detailed the whisper campaign by white American officers to slander and disparage Black officers. Du Bois “saw their dignity and felt their pain,” Williams writes. “The Black soldiers who previously existed largely as racial symbols in his political and historical imagination now were very real.”
Back in the United States, Black veterans faced violence in what Du Bois’s N.A.A.C.P. colleague James Weldon Johnson called the “Red Summer” of 1919. Seventy-six African Americans were lynched that year, including at least 11 Black veterans. Leroy Johnston — a 24-year-old who earned the Croix de Guerre as a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters” — was pulled off a train in Arkansas and executed along with his three brothers. Their bodies, riddled with shotgun blasts, were left nearly unrecognizable on the side of the road.
One Black soldier, surveying this bloodshed as he prepared to return to Virginia, asked in a letter to Du Bois, “Why did black men die here in France 3,300 miles from their homes — Was it to make democracy safe for white people in America — with the Black race left out.” Du Bois’s postwar editorials spoke to this rising militancy among Black veterans and citizens. “We are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land,” he declared.
Du Bois wanted “The Black Man and the Wounded World” to be both the definitive history of the Black experience in the world war and a warning about the tragic consequences when world leaders treat the lives and human rights of millions of people as playthings. He offered updates on the book project in the pages of The Crisis, asking readers to send information related to Black military service in the war.
Hundreds of Black veterans and their families responded. Hattie Lewis from Washington, D.C., sent Du Bois the official record of the citation for her husband, Kenneth Lewis, who was killed while serving with the 372nd Infantry Regiment in France. “I am sending these documents hoping they may be of material benefit to the History,” she wrote. “After using kindly return same to me.”
Despite this collective support for his research, Du Bois struggled to complete the book. His appeals for financial support from the Carnegie Corporation, Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and publishers were rejected. They found the project to be too radical, too narrowly focused on “Negro troops,” or not commercially viable.
As months stretched into years, and years into decades, Black veterans who had lent their materials to Du Bois wrote to him to ask for their belongings back. He felt guilty disappointing them. “Completing the book had now become more than just a scholarly obligation,” Williams writes. “It had become a moral duty.”
The last foundation rejection he received for “The Black Man and the Wounded World” came from the Social Science Research Council in early 1940, as Nazi Germany continued invading sovereign countries in Europe. Du Bois had tried to warn the world about the horrible costs of war, but now it was too late. He looked at his two decades of work — more than 800 manuscript pages and a vast archive of letters, diaries, photographs and maps he received from Black veterans — and finally accepted the fact that he would never finish the book.
By rendering this story in such rich archival detail, Williams’s book is a fitting coda to Du Bois’s unfinished history of Black Americans and the First World War.
Matthew Delmont’s most recent book is “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad.”
THE WOUNDED WORLD: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War | By Chad L. Williams | 530 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $30