Melville Miller was only sixteen when he enlisted with the Regiment that would become the Harlem Hellfighters. “Everybody’s head [was] held high,” he recalled decades later in an interview in 1977, “we were all proud to be Americans, proud to be black, and proud to be in the 15th New York Infantry.” (Wang)
Awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for their valor, Miller and his comrades of the 15th Infantry–better known as the 369th or Hellfighters–were welcomed home to some of the worst racial violence and rioting in American history: the Red Summer.
Fig. 1. “Whites stoning Negro to death” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
The White American’s fear that returning Black soldiers posed a threat to racial hierarchy was a matter of public record. An editorial titled “Nip It in the Bud” was run in a Louisiana newspaper in 1918 and warned its White readers that military service had “given these men more exalted ideas of their station in life than really exists, and having these ideas they will be guilty of many acts of self-assertion, arrogance, and insolence… there will be much friction before they sink back into their old groove, and accept the fact that social equality will never be accepted.”
“This is the right time,” the editorial urged, “to show them what will and what will not be permitted.” (EJI 29)
Fig. 2. Omaha courthouse lynching. 28 Sept. 1919, Wikimedia Commons.
In towns and cities across the South and Midwest–including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Knoxville, Omaha, and Tulsa–hundreds were killed in the violent anti-Black clashes of the “Red Summer” in 1919. Many of these victims were veterans; men who had survived the bloodshed of France only to be brutally murdered at the hands of those citizens they had fought so valiantly to defend. A Black serviceman’s uniform was regularly treated like a target on his back.
Private Charles Lewis was wearing his uniform in Kentucky when he was told to empty his pockets by the local Deputy Sheriff. Private Lewis refused and was thus charged with assault and resisting arrest. When news of his “challenge to white authority” reached the local community, a white mob was quick to gather and storm the jail where Private Lewis was being held. After dragging the Private from the jailhouse, the mob secured a rope around Lewis’ neck and hung him from a tree. The next morning, an approving crowd of hundreds gathered to view his body. He was still in uniform. (EJI 28)
Across the country, few if any government officials felt inclined to protect the lives of African Americans; on the contrary, many justified and openly encouraged White retaliation as “needed rebuke to Black presumption.”
“Not only is blood thicker than water,” declared Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi on the floor of the Senate in September 1919, “but race is greater than law.” (Williams 103)
EJI. Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans. Equal Justice Initiative, 2016, https://eji.org/sites/default/files/lynching-in-america-targeting-black-veterans.pdf.
Omaha courthouse lynching. 28 Sept. 1919, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Omaha_courthouse_lynching.jpg.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Whites stoning Negro to death” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1922. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-1ee7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
Wang, Hansi. “The Harlem Hellfighters: Fighting Racism in the Trenches of WWI.” NPR, 1 April 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/04/01/294913379/the-harlem-hellfighters-fighting-racism-in-the-trenches-of-wwi.
Williams, Lee E. and Lee E. Williams II. Anatomy of Four Race Riots: Racial Conflict in Knoxville, Elaine (Arkansas), Tulsa, and Chicago, 1919-1921. University Press of Mississippi, 1972.