When the United States entered World War I, most black Americans
lived on farms in the south. They were technically “freed”
after the Civil War, but most black Americans lived in extreme poverty.
There were better paying jobs in factories and railroads in the
North, but those jobs were usually filled by European immigrants.
The flood of immigrants stopped when war broke out.
The factory jobs they usually filled were now open to black workers.
By 1920, more than 350,000 black people moved to the North. They
settled in railroad and industrial centers such as New York, Boston,
Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland.
White farmers and business owners in the South depended
on black workers to fill low paying jobs. Communities in Georgia
and Mississippi passed laws limiting the number of black people
who could ride trains. The mayor of New Orleans made a formal request
to the president of the Illinois Central Railroad to stop all northbound
trains carrying black passengers.
The black people found jobs in the North, but they
also found resentment and prejudice. Almost all unions were closed
to blacks. In some cases, the resentment erupted into violence.
Black men did serve in the American army, but most
were only allowed to work in menial jobs. They worked as kitchen
staff or dockworkers. There were three all-black divisions who fought
at the front, but white officers commanded those divisions. The
American army did not integrate until after the Second World War.
American leaders opposed participation in the Great War. A. Philip
Randolph argued that Black Americans should not participate because
they were denied “full citizenship.” W.E.B. DuBois disagreed,
arguing, “while the war lasts [we should] forget our special
grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white
fellow citizens and allied nations that are fighting for democracy."