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‘Insulting African American Gold Star widows has a history’

Gold Star mothers and widows visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris in 1930. (Courtesy National Archives via Journal of American History)

For 11 years, Bessie Strawther longed for a chance to visit her son’s grave. Pvt. Henry Strawther, a black American soldier in a segregated infantry unit, had died fighting the German army on Oct. 6, 1918, nearly five weeks before World War I ended in armistice. Veterans in his home town of Urbana, Ohio, had named an American Legion post after him, but his body remained interred somewhere in France — an ocean away from his mother.

Then came an extraordinary proposal from the U.S. government. The War Department in 1929 created a program to send bereaved mothers and widows like Strawther on two-week, all-expense-paid trips to Europe to visit the final resting places of their sons and husbands. The journeys became known as the Gold Star mother and widow pilgrimages, named after the newly minted organization for women who had lost family members in the war.

In summer 1930, Strawther took a train from Urbana to New York City, where the War Department had arranged for her to board a commercial steamer bound for France.

But shortly after she arrived in the city, she started having second thoughts. Government officials were requiring Strawther and the other black women to travel on a different ship and stay in different quarters from white women making the same journey.

The idea of being segregated sickened Strawther. Her son had given his life, but her government still treated her as a second-class citizen. Days before the ship set sail, she backed out. “I am not going to France,” she wrote to a prominent NAACP member at the time. She had accepted the invitation “not knowing what I do now,” she wrote. “I do not want to be a disgrace to my son and the race.”

Strawther was one of a few hundred black women who signed up to make the government-funded pilgrimage to Europe in the early 1930s, only to be told by the War Department that they couldn’t travel or share hotels with their white counterparts.

Her story was highlighted in a Journal of American History article from September 2015 that detailed the little-known story of the federal government’s well-intended but discriminatory program that brought Gold Star mothers and widows to the battlefields and cemeteries of the First World War.

The article received renewed attention this week after President Trump was accused of insulting a black Gold Star widow whose husband, U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson, was recently killed in an ambush in Niger. On Monday, as Trump clashed openly with the widow over allegations that he was insensitive during his condolence call to her, the Journal of American History announced it was posting the article free online for the next month. “Insulting African American gold star widows has a history,” the journal wrote in a tweet.

The article was written by Rebecca Jo Plant, an associate professor of history at the University of California at San Diego, and Frances M. Clarke, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sydney. Their research, along with a 1999 essay in the National Archives’ Prologue magazine, represents some of the only publicly available scholarship on the segregation of black women who took part in the pilgrimage program.

“I’m incredibly happy that people are reading it now,” Plant told The Washington Post on Tuesday, “but I’m also sad that this is what it has come to, that it’s getting all this attention because it’s so resonant in the current moment.”

President Trump's response to the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger is causing an uproar. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The call for government-sponsored pilgrimages to Europe began in the 1920s. Two national organizations, the American War Mothers and the American Gold Star Mothers, lobbied successfully for the all-expenses-paid journeys after learning that many women couldn’t afford to travel overseas to see where their loved ones were buried.

After the program was authorized by Congress, the War Department decided to segregate the women. Integrated trips were “impracticable,” the department said. Plus, the mothers and widows “would prefer to seek solace in their grief from companions of their own race.”

The move set off a sustained protest against the pilgrimages, led primarily by black male leaders from the NAACP and black newspapers, according to Plant and Clarke’s research. The Chicago Defender urged a boycott, calling the program the “crowning insult” in a long list of abuses by the administration of President Herbert Hoover. Some Democratic politicians spread rumors that the women would be sent over in cattle boats.

The women were presented with a wrenching choice: Join the protest and take a stand against segregation, or make what would probably be a once-in-a-lifetime voyage to see where their sons and husbands were buried.

Ultimately, most would choose the latter. Plant and Clarke found that 279 black women made the pilgrimage, traveling in all-black groups between 1930 to 1933.

It was an easy decision for some. “Ever since I lost my son in 1918 I have been wanting to come,” one mother said. “I would have come over on a cattle-boat. I would have swam 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.”

But others agonized for years.

Strawther, the mother from Ohio, was hesitant. She canceled her trip in 1930 but sailed to France with the last all-black party in 1933, according to Plant and Clarke.

Carrie Brown of Eatonton, Ga., had twice booked the trip to see her son’s grave, only to cancel her reservations. It was “enough to go there to see the last of my son with a weeping heart,” she wrote to a protest organizer in 1930, according to the article. Combined with the segregation, the experience seemed “dreadful,” she added. “As Mr. Patrick Henry said, ‘Give me Liberty or give me death.’” But eventually, she, too, went on the journey, shipping out with the last party, according to Plant and Clarke.

About two-dozen women canceled their reservations and never looked back. For them, the ignominy of a segregated voyage outweighed the desire to visit the gravesites.

One Philadelphia widow told the War Department she would “not be a party to this conspiracy against the dead,” according to the article. Another wrote: “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. I feel they have grossly insulted our race and that they can never make amends.”

In total, about 6,700 women of all races made the pilgrimage, as archivist Constance Potter has written in the National Archives‘ Prologue magazine.

Backlash against the program embarrassed President Herbert Hoover, who was facing a tough reelection fight that he would ultimately lose. So his administration tried to mend things by making sure the women were cared for in every other way possible, according to Plant and Clarke.

Col. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the Army’s highest-ranking black officer, was tapped to oversee the effort. A staff of black civil servants and other workers handled day-to-day operations on every leg of the journey. Black officials from the Quartermaster Corps, the Army’s logistics branch, bought suitcases for women who showed up without luggage. They repaired eyeglasses and shoes, and coordinated health care for those with medical needs, Plant and Clarke wrote.

When they got to Paris, crowds of cheering Parisians and American expatriates greeted them (“France Seeks to Make Up for U.S. Jim Crow,” read one headline in the Baltimore Afro-American). The American jazz bandleader Noble Sissle and other black performers played for them. The women were treated to meals at top-notch restaurants and visits to the Louvre, Versailles and Napoleon’s tomb. Then they took the more solemn trips to the battlefields and cemeteries where the fallen soldiers were buried.

Plant and Clarke noted that there were some disparities in the accommodations. White women sailed on ocean liners, while black women traveled on modified freight ships. In New York, white women stayed in expensive hotels while black women stayed in Harlem’s YWCA. In Paris, white women stayed near the center of the city while black women were housed closer to the edge of town.

Still, many of the women returned home with glowing words about the journey and high praise for the federal government, according to Plant and Clarke’s research. “Uncle Sam is doing his best for us,” one woman told a Jamaican American newspaper reporter. “Nothing more could be done for us unless they presented us with a sack of gold.”

In an interview last week with the history blog Process, Plant and Clarke said the black Gold Star women had essentially fought their own two-front war over the pilgrimage — against black male activists on one side and government officials on the other.

“The pilgrims declined to assume the role of the self-sacrificing race mother who upheld the memory of her son by foregoing the government-funded trip, regardless of her heart’s desire,” they said. “Nor did they stick to the role the federal government had scripted for them: that of the grieving and grateful supplicant who gained peace of mind through the benevolent actions of the state.”

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