Black people contested the boundaries of American democracy, demanded their rights as American citizens, and asserted their very humanity in ways both subtle and dramatic.Recognizing the significance of World War I is essential to developing a full understanding of modern African-American history and the struggle for black freedom.The black press sided with France, because of its purported commitment to racial equality, and chronicled the exploits of colonial African soldiers serving in the French army.
When war erupted in Europe in August 1914, most Americans, African Americans included, saw no reason for the United States to become involved.
This sentiment strengthened as war between the German-led Central Powers and the Allied nations of France, Great Britain, and Russia ground to a stalemate and the death toll increased dramatically.
Unable to meet demand with existing European immigrants and white women alone, northern businesses increasingly looked to black southerners to fill the void.
In turn, the prospect of higher wages and improved working conditions prompted thousands of black southerners to abandon their agricultural lives and start anew in major industrial centers.
Black women remained by and large confined to domestic work, while men for the first time in significant numbers made entryways into the northern manufacturing, packinghouse, and automobile industries.
Anxious white southerners claimed that northern labor agents lulled unsuspecting black southerners to the North and into a life of urban misery.They frequently endured residential segregation, substandard living conditions, job discrimination, and in many cases, the hostilities of white residents.Older black residents sometimes resented the presence of the new migrants, as neighborhoods became increasingly overcrowded and stigmatized as ghettos.By the time of the war, most black people had been disfranchised, effectively stripped of their right to vote through both legal and extralegal means.Jim Crow segregation, legitimized by the (1896) Supreme Court ruling, forced black people to use separate and usually inferior facilities.The war did, however, have a significant impact on African Americans, particularly the majority who lived in the South.The war years coincided with the Great Migration, one of the largest internal movements of people in American history.Black southerners faced a host of social, economic, and political challenges that prompted their migration to the North.The majority of black farmers labored as sharecroppers, remained in perpetual debt, and lived in dire poverty.Even more influential were the testimonials and letters of the migrants themselves.Migrants relied on informal networks of family and friends to facilitate their move to the North.