Frances Clarke is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia. In 2011, she published War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North, which jointly won the Australian Historical Association’s biennial prize for best work of history for a first time author. She is currently collaborating with Rebecca Jo Plant on a project examining child soldiers in American history.
Rebecca Jo Plant is an associate professor in the History Department at the University of California, San Diego and the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America (Chicago, 2010). Currently, she and Dr. Frances M. Clarke of the University of Sydney hold an ACLS Collaborative Research Fellowship to support their work on the history of underage soldiers and changing conceptions of childhood in American history. She is also a Distinguished Lecturer with the Organization of American Historians.
Their article “‘The Crowning Insult’: Federal Segregation and the Gold Star Mother and Widow Pilgrimages of the Early 1930s” appears in the September 2015 issue of the Journal of American History.
Could you briefly summarize what your article is about?
Our article is about African Americans’ responses to the segregation of the gold star mother pilgrimages of the early 1930s, and what those responses reveal about the shifting landscape of black politics in the interwar period. It is also a narrative-driven work that tells the story of a group of so-called ordinary black women who faced an extraordinary situation—one that required them to weigh calls for racial solidarity against personal desires.
What happened is this: from 1930 to 1933, the federal government sent surviving mothers of deceased World War I soldiers and widows who had not remarried on pilgrimages to Europe to visit the American cemeteries where their loved ones had been interred. The black press lauded the program and urged all eligible women to participate—that is, until the War Department announced that the pilgrimages would be segregated. After failing to convince the government to change course, the NAACP and other activists called for a boycott of the program. Some 25 mothers and widows cancelled their trips and never rescheduled. But in the end, 279 African American women elected to make the journey.
During the two weeks they spent in Europe, the pilgrims went on numerous sightseeing expeditions, dined at elegant restaurants, were honored in official ceremonies, and enjoyed variety shows staged just for them by famous African American expatriates. Upon their return to the U.S., many disputed negative coverage of the pilgrimages in the black newspapers; a few even actively campaigned to persuade other women to accept the government’s invitation.
Yet their testimony did little to counter a rumor that began to spread within black communities that alleged the women had been forced to cross the Atlantic on cattle boats. Pushed by Democratic political operatives who sought to lure black voters away from the Republican Party, by 1932 the cattle boat rumor had gained widespread currency. It contributed to African Americans’ growing alienation from the Republican Party and would shape the collective memory of the pilgrimages, overriding the testimony of the women themselves.
Telling this story allows us to highlight several defining features of black politics in the interwar era. We show how memories of black soldiers’ and veterans’ ill treatment during World War I proved powerfully enduring, contributing to a new, masculinist tone in interwar black politics. Decrying the segregation of the pilgrimages, male activists and writers focused their outrage on the government’s shameful dishonoring of the fallen soldiers, at times almost to the exclusion of the policy’s still-living victims. We then show how this growing tendency to equate the struggle for racial justice with a defense of black manhood coincided with a decline in the influence of middle-class black clubwomen, many of whom remained wedded to the increasingly unpopular Republican Party. In other words, by zeroing in on this turbulent period when black voters began to abandon the Republican Party en masse, we seek to flesh out the emotional and cultural context of this momentous realignment—a context informed by lingering anger over the war and its aftermath and politicized ideals of manhood and womanhood that could lead to resentment and antagonism.
But in the end, the article really is a story of women, most of them quite poor, who resisted attempts by both black male activists and the U.S. government to confine them to symbolic roles. 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. 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. Instead, the women insisted on their identities as American war mothers and widows by laying claim to this unusual government benefit, while affirming their right to experience not only grief, but also the pleasures international travel, fine accommodations, and excellent service.
How did you become interested in this topic?
Rebecca first encountered the pilgrimages when working on her monograph, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. One chapter of that book analyzes the pilgrimage program as a whole for what it suggests about the cultural power and political implications of maternalist ideology in interwar America. Although she could not fully explore the issues surrounding the African Americans pilgrimages at the time, she discovered enough material to realize there was a compelling story to be told. Here was an early civil rights protest movement that had drawn front-page coverage in black newspapers, yet surfaced only fleetingly, if at all, in historical accounts. By the time she could return to the topic, we were already discussing the possibility of collaborating on a book, and we decided it would be wise to attempt an article-length project first. And because Frances’s prior work encompasses such topics as women’s relationship to the nation state and the ways in which wars come to be remembered and memorialized, she was also drawn to the subject matter.
Aside from its evident political importance, the pilgrimage episode appealed to us because it seemed so surprising and contradictory. While the pilgrims’ segregation was of course in keeping with the pervasive character of racism and discrimination at the time, many observers viewed it as particularly repugnant; the special status of war mothers and widows, the fact that the pilgrimages were supposed to honor the women, and the national character of the program all seemed to militate against segregation. By adopting and then enforcing the policy, the Hoover Administration thus revealed the depths of the state’s (and the Republican Party’s) commitment to segregation and its role in perpetuating institutional racism.
Yet at the same time, the arresting photographs of the black pilgrims—which were taken by official photographers and included in government albums of the pilgrimages—seem to tell another story. They show black women dining in elegant restaurants, riding in the first-class train cars, being served by white wait staff, visiting the popular tourist sites of Paris, and being honored by French and American officers in full military regalia. Looking at these images, it seems remarkable that the black women were included in the program at all: the notion that the federal government would send poor black women on all-expenses-paid trips to Europe—even segregated ones—flies in the face of everything we know about the treatment of African Americans in the interwar period.
Could you tell us more about co-authoring a piece? What was the process like?
For us the experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one. It’s wonderful to have a partner who is equally caught up in the minutia of the project and can share your enthusiasm about new discoveries and insights. But we attribute the success of our collaboration to how well we knew each other as friends and scholars prior to working together. As graduate students, we were in a writing group with two other good friends, and since then, we have read, critiqued and edited virtually everything the other has written. So we had already established the kind of relationship that allows us to be very open in terms of expressing criticism and bouncing ideas off one another.
On a more practical note, it would be impossible to work together as we currently do without a file-sharing software program and cloud storage. This is even more the case for our current book project, a study of underage soldiers and conceptions of childhood during the Civil War, which is based on a much larger set of sources. Having all of our primary and most of our secondary sources digitized and uploaded where we can both easily access them is essential.
How did you decide what sources to use? What sort of benefits/drawbacks are there from using these sources?
We started with what was most easily accessible and obviously relevant, including the Chicago Defender and other black newspapers, as well as the papers of the NAACP. These sources conveyed mainly male voices, and at times they expressed what seemed to us a startling degree of hostility toward the mothers and widows who chose not boycott the pilgrimages. Hoping to gain insight into black women’s responses to both the government and male activists, we then turned to the papers of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and Nannie Burroughs, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McLeod Bethune, all leading black clubwomen. These sources, combined with letters sent to Herbert Hoover and the National Archives’ extensive collection of papers on gold star mother pilgrimages, constituted the bulk of the material we drew on when writing the paper we originally submitted to the Journal of American History. In that version, we focused more exclusively on the gender-inflected politics surrounding the pilgrimages, and how the issue of the pilgrims’ segregation figured in African Americans’ defection from the Republican Party.
While awaiting the readers’ reports, however, we finally discovered what we had been looking for all along: a significant cache of letters from the mothers and widows themselves. It turns out that their correspondence with government officials is filed with their sons’ and husbands’ burial files, unlike the other pilgrimages papers that are filed with the records of the Quartermaster Corps, the branch of the Army that ran the pilgrimages. These letters really gave us pause. We had been more or less dismissive of the government reports and other sources that highly praised the conduct of the pilgrimages and portrayed the black pilgrims as satisfied and extremely grateful. But it was hard to maintain this stance in the face of the letters and thank you notes that many women sent upon their return to the United States—missives that included lines like, “Never in my life have I had such a wonderfull [sic] trip.” We had to think more carefully about who ran the black pilgrimages, how the pilgrims were in fact treated, and what it meant to these women to be recognized as American war mothers and widows and sent on what were fairly luxurious European trips, paid for by the federal government.
Around the same time, we also discovered (through the use of U.S. census records) that some of the civil servants who had filed reports about the black pilgrimages—individuals we had assumed to be white—were in fact African American. Once we realized this, the reports read quite differently; what had previously sounded like attempts to legitimate the government’s policy now read more like efforts to affirm the women’s status as particularly deserving citizens. Take, for instance, the following sentence:
To sum up the apparent feeling of the pilgrims as the various members of the party expressed it, they were accorded treatment and accommodations far beyond anything they had dreamed of. As one of them stated it, they return home with a view that their sacrifices of sons and husbands was for their country.
Initially, we had focused on the first of these two sentences, which read like a white government official suggesting that the black women had been so overwhelmed by the government’s largesse that they scarcely registered the fact they had been segregated. But once we better understood the writer’s own social situation as a well-educated, long-term black civil servant, who had no doubt witnessed attempts to push African Americans out of federal jobs in the preceding decades—what leapt out was the second sentence. Taking pride in the role he had played in seeing that the women were well treated, this man implied that, prior to the pilgrimages, the mothers and widows had been burdened with the awful feeling that their sons and husbands had died in a white man’s war, fighting for a country they could not truly claim as their own.
Drilling down in this manner allowed us to gain a fuller and more complex and nuanced understanding of the pilgrimage episode. The other useful thing we did was to create a database that tracked all of the African American women who at some point signaled their intention to make the pilgrimage. By comparing lists of names compiled by the government with ship manifests, we could accurately determine who had cancelled a reservation (or reservations), and who had made the journey. This rather painstaking exercise was necessary if we hoped to accurately gauge the relative success or failure of the boycott, because the numbers reported in black newspapers from the time were very inconsistent. But it proved to be even more useful than we anticipated, for it revealed how deeply conflicted some of the women were. For instance, we found cases in which a woman made a reservation, then cancelled it upon hearing the pilgrimages would be segregated and sent a letter of protest to Washington, then made and cancelled another reservation, and ultimately sailed with the very last group.
It was when we began to appreciate that the pilgrimage episode could also illuminate cracks or fault lines in the existing racial order, divisions among African Americans, and even internal conflicts that a richer story began to emerge.
What might scholars outside of your field take away from your article?
On the level of methodology, our hope is that the article will be helpful to other historians seeking to understand larger societal tensions and transformations through a close examination of an unusual historical episode. It’s an approach that comes with its own set of challenges. When you start off with a specific question and then seek evidence to answer it, the central argument and larger significance of the project are to a certain extent already built into the initial inquiry. But if you decide to focus on a unique event or episode because it strikes you as fascinating or surprising, then you have to trust your instincts more, because you really don’t know where you will end up. You have to believe that the broader significance is there.
One of the central insights we hope people outside the field derive from the article is that there was no single “black community” unified around a shared vision of how justice and equality should be pursued. The integrationist vision articulated by the NAACP has historically received the largest share of scholars’ attention, but Garveyism, which promoted pan-Africanism and separatism, drew far more adherents in the 1920s. And recent scholarship has shown that the movement had broad appeal not only in urban centers, but also in the rural South. We have no way of knowing whether or to what extent the black gold star mothers and widows embraced Garveyism, but it is fair to assume that at least some of them would have been attracted to the general idea of black separatism. This further complicates the question of how to read the women’s decisions. If we assume that some of them did not particularly want to live in a fully integrated society, let alone travel in close quarters with a group of white women, then perhaps refusing the pilgrimages on the grounds of segregation may have made little sense, especially once they began receiving reports of how well the black pilgrims had been treated. For a laundress living in a small town in South Carolina, perhaps making the trip to Europe and being treated like a respectable lady felt more like an assertion of dignity and equality than refusing the government’s offer would have.
The article also contributes to scholarly trends that have aimed to recover antecedents to the 1950s civil rights movement, to reconceptualize the struggle for civil rights as a national rather than a regional movement, and to question the general periodization of African American history since Reconstruction. The basic narrative that portrays the 1890s as the nadir for African Americans—one that gave way to economic, cultural, and political progress with the Great Migration and World War—does not accord with the historical understanding articulated in the sources we examined. When the pilgrimage program’s critics contemplated the segregation of the gold star mothers in relation to prior actions by the federal government, what they saw was a story of declension—a decades-long retreat from the promise of equal rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments. As evidence of this deterioration, they pointed to everything from the growing efforts in the 1910s and 1920s to exclude African Americans from white-collar civil service jobs, the diplomatic corps, and the ranks of the U.S. Army, to President Hoover’s refusal to have his picture taken with black delegations visiting the White House. We hoped to recover this perspective in order to show just how discouraging this era was for African Americans who had previously hoped or believed they could look to the federal government for acknowledgement of their status as American citizens and to provide at least some degree of leverage in countering the unapologetic racism and violence blacks experienced in the South.
This interview was originally published in September 2015.