Memory  /  Retrieval

Retracing Du Bois’ Missteps

A historian probes the ‘tragedy’ of the famed scholar's failed WWI history.

Williams came across Du Bois’ incomplete manuscript at UMass Amherst in 2000 while researching the Ph.D. dissertation that would become his 2010 book, “Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era.” His years spent poring over Du Bois’ archives and records helped Williams understand the professional and personal dimensions to Du Bois’ failings. The inability to finish the book was a source of deep frustration, while his support of the war and his belief in what the conflict could have meant for equality in America haunted Du Bois till his death.

“The war was one of the most consequential and traumatic moments in his life as far as his wrestling with what it meant to be an African-American,” said Williams. “What he talks about in his 1903 book, ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ — the ‘double consciousness,’ the twoness of being a Negro and being an American, these two warring ideals. Du Bois thought that the war would be able to, at least temporarily, reconcile those two conflicting aspects of black identity more broadly, but also personally, and that didn’t happen.”

More than 350,000 African-American soldiers served in segregated units during World War I.  Most of the black troops stationed in France were assigned to ditch digging or the bearing of dead bodies. In time, the Army created two African-American combat units, the 92nd division made up of draftees, and the 93rd that comprised black national guardsmen. While the 93rd “compiled a stellar combat record,” the 92nd floundered.

“Racist white commanders and deliberate neglect from the War Department doomed the performance of the division from the start, while its black officers … endured humiliation after humiliation,” Williams said in a Radcliffe talk in the fall.

Du Bois initially saw “Wounded World” as way to stem the outcry over “Close Ranks,” an editorial he’d written in July 1918 for the NAACP monthly journal The Crisis in which he called for African-American soldiers to temporarily put aside their grievances and join up with the Allied forces in the name of democracy. Critics branded him a traitor to his race. Du Bois was shaken by the rebuke.

“He viewed writing this book as a form of personal and political redemption … that he would be able to rehabilitate his credibility through writing the history of the black experience in the war,” said Williams.

But the project took on an even deeper meaning when Du Bois interviewed African-American soldiers in France after the fighting. They recounted the “horrific racism and discrimination they had endured,” at the hands of fellow servicemen, said Williams. From that moment on the project became one of “reclamation.”

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