“We have to be shot down here like rabbits.” (Encore: The Great Migration, Part 1)

“The Migrants Arrived in Great Numbers,” Jacob Lawrence
Image credit:  Museum of Modern Ar
“…the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” — W.E.B. duBois

The Civil War was supposed to mean the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom, franchise, and full citizenship for African Americans. And in the decades after the war, many blacks did make legislative, educational, and financial gains.  But as we learned in the first episode of American Epistles, many more formerly enslaved people and their children faced limited economic opportunity and the constant threat of violence.

With the outbreak of World War I, immigration to the United States decreased and production demands increased.   Low unemployment in the North meant that African Americans had a new opportunity to escape life in the South.

Men and women, the young and the older, regardless of education level, wrote letters to the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Chicago Urban League, and other organizations.  The following letter was one of many that expressed their desperation:

Macon, GA
April 1, 1917

Dear Sir:
I am writing you for information. I want to come north east, but I have not sufficient funds, and I am writing you to see if there is any way that you can help me by giving me the names of some of the firms that will send me a transportation, as we are down here where we have to be shot down here like rabbits for every little [offense], as I seen an [occurrence] [happen] down here this after noon when three [deputies] from the [sheriff’s] office [and] one Negro spotter come out and found some of our [race men] in a crap game. And it makes me want to leave the south worse than I ever did when such things hapen right at my door, hopeing to have a reply soon and will in close a stamp from the same.

This was the first episode of a three-part series on the Great Migration.

Recommended Reading
The Warmth of Other Suns:  Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow:  Richard Wormser covers a lot of ground in a relative few pages.  It opens with Reconstruction and ends at 1954.

I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Black Workers and the Great Migration North,” Carole Marks

Blowing the Trumpet: The ‘Chicago Defender’ and Black Migration during World War I,” James R. Grossman

The Civil War:  The Senate’s History

The Great Black Migration:  A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Steven A. Reich

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration,” James R. Grossman

The Other Black Wall Streets

Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, Brian Kelly

Separate is Not Equal:  Brown v. Board of Education

Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon

“I was awakened … by the low roar of guns.” (Hello Girls: Mini Episode)

Women of the Army Signal Corps at First Army Headquarters
Image credit: National Archives

“Every order for an infantry advance, a barrage preparatory to the taking of a new objective and, in fact, for every troop movement, came of these ‘fighting lines,’ as we called them.  These wires connected to the front, up with the generals and made it possible for the latter to know exactly what was going on at any moment and to direct operations accordingly.”

–Berthe Hunt, Women’s Telephone Unit of the Army Signal Corps

Just a few decades after the invention of the telephone, this technology proved vital to the execution of World War I. Troop movements, and orders to fire, cease-fire, advance, or retreat were communicated by telephone, with the help of switchboard operators. But when the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) arrived in France, they were faced with phone lines that had been battered by three years of war. There was also the language barrier to overcome. Bell Telephone helped solve the first problem; the “Hello Girls” solved the second.


Recommended Reading

Into the Breach, American Women Overseas in World War I, Dorothy and Carl Schneider

Overlooked No More: Grace Banker, Whose ‘Hello Girls’ Decoded Calls in World War I,” Kasia Pilat, New York Times

Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 95th Congress, First Session

Women On the Frontlines of WWI Came to Operate Telephones,” Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian.com

Women Telephone Operators in WWI France,” Jill Frahm

“We fed them what we had.” (Women’s Welfare Work in WWI, Part 3)

affw chauffeurs
A.F.F.W. Drivers. Chauffeurs of the American Fund for French Wounded.  Image credit:  Library of Congress

November 4, 1918
The chauffeurs have been most tremendously busy these last two weeks on account of moving. My life seems to hinge around choked carbureters, broken springs, long hours on the road, food snatched when you can get it, and sleep. Nothing else has mattered to me and I feel like a regular camion driver, dirty, but so accustomed to the job that it is no longer tiring.

The country over which I have been motoring is tremendously interesting, but most gloomy; unless there are soldiers about there is not a living thing, nothing but waste and destruction. If you saw a whole house you would stop and look at it as a phenomenon. One evening I tried to take a shortcut home with a doctor and we got most hopelessly involved in bad roads which finally led us to an impassable bridge.
We had to retrace our steps completely and start all over again … Never again will I be so foolish as to try short cuts home through ” No Man’s Land,” even if it is French property now.

–Letter from Nora Saltonstall

The fighting stopped on 11/11 at 11 a.m. But the needs continued. In the aftermath of World War I, among the rubble and ruin, American women continued to serve. Significant relief was provided by the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW) and the Comité Américain pour les Régions Dévastées de France (CARD). Women like Anne Tracy Morgan used their wealth and social status to help the French rebuild their homes and villages long after the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

Recommended Reading:

America’s Women:  400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Gail Collins

Into the Breach, American Women Overseas in World War I, Dorothy and Carl Schneider

Credits for Primary Sources:

Letters of Laura Birkhead, read with permission from the State Historical Society of Missouri

Letters of Marian Bartol, managed by the Morgan Library and Museum

The overseas war record of the Winsor school, 1914-1919, (Elizabeth Beal, Amy Bradley, Isabel Coolidge, Nora Saltonstall)

“Don’t drop them pies!” (Women’s Welfare Work in WWI, Part 2)

Salvation Army Worker Serving Donuts to the AEF; Image credit:  Smithsonian Magazine

“August 10, 1917
I get my appointment and go loco w joy. It seems to me my reason for existence is explained. All my training and experience seem to have fitted me for just this. Bradford Knapp talks and I get two ideas. Unless one gives all one is not giving enough, and if one can go one should. The other thing was that to our generation has come this great chance for sacrifice. There is a joy in my heart that this has come. Everyone is awfully good about my going away. I did not know how much my work meant to me.”

–Diary of Mary Paxton Keeley

On April 6, 1917, Congress voted for a declaration of war on Germany. War had already been raging for three years. And for the whole of those three years, American women had been involved in the care and comfort of European soldiers and civilians. Now that American men would be fighting, American women took on service as a patriotic duty.  But not all women were given an equal opportunity to serve, nor did all American soldiers receive equal access to the welfare services.

Recommended Reading:

America’s Women:  400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Gail Collins

The Women Who Fried Donuts and Dodged Bombs on the Front Lines of WWI, Smithsonian Magazine

Credits for Primary Sources:

Diary of Mary Paxton Keeley, read with permission from the State Historical Society of Missouri

Letters of Emma Young Dickson, read with permission from the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries

The overseas war record of the Winsor school, 1914-1919, (Constance Cunningham’s letter)

Canteening Overseas, 1917-1919, (Memoir of Marian Baldwin)

Into the Breach, American Women Overseas in World War I, Dorothy and Carl Schneider

“We washed the men and the floors.” (Women’s Welfare Work in WWI, Part 1)

Surgical Dressings Committee Volunteers in the Zander Ward of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital; Image Credit:  Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library

“Their house had been destroyed and they had lost all their farm possessions but one cow. They were living in one side of a dirt-floored barn that belonged to some friend, and someone else had given them a bed. But why this family was living at all, I do not know. They had rushed away ahead of the Germans with one hundred and eighty Belgian soldiers at the time of the retreat toward Antwerp, and of the one hundred and eighty soldiers only twenty got out alive. Yet this family had come out intact, and survived typhoid fever after that. There were tears in the eyes of that mother — almost the only weeping we saw in Belgium.”

–Dr. Caroline Hedger, Chicago Women’s Club

Thousands of American women crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be of service to the soldiers and civilians suffering through World War I. Countless more served from their kitchens and communities in the United States. In this first episode of a three-part series on women’s relief work, we will learn about some of the great contributions made by Americans–especially women–before the US declared war on Germany.

Recommended Reading:

America’s Women:  400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Gail Collins

Credits for Primary Sources:

Diary of Mary Paxton Keeley, read with permission from the State Historical Society of Missouri

War bread; a Personal Narrative of the War and relief in Belgium, Edward Eyre Hunt

The overseas war record of the Winsor school, 1914-1919

Into the Breach, American Women Overseas in World War I, Dorothy and Carl Schneider

“I have the right not to vote.” (Women’s Suffrage: Mini Episode)

Image credit:  Public Domain


Topeka Feb 11, 1887

To Gov Martin

Dear Sir:

Ten thousand Women who have enough rights without voting and also plenty to do, to attend to their own affairs without meddling with men’s business, ask you to Veto this Suffrage bill.  We don’t want to vote, and go to the polls with n****rs — and all kinds of woman.

Mrs G Monroe
and thousands of others

We’ve all heard of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, but there were millions of women and men who spoke for, and against, women’s suffrage.  Today’s mini-episode shares a few of those voices.

Other podcasts about women’s suffrage:

History Chicks

Stuff You Missed in History Class

Credits for Primary Sources:

The letters of Effie B. Frost and Mrs. G. Monroe, as well as the Woman Suffrage Pamphlet by Rev. Stephen Estey, are read with permission from the Kanas State Historical Society.

The petition by Mrs. Kate T. F. Cornell is in the public domain and available at docsteach.org.

Anti-Suffrage Essays by Massachusetts Women is in the public domain and available at gutenberg.org.

The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia, James L. Conyers Jr., Nancy J. Dawson, Lee E. Thompson, Mary Joan Thompson

“The Great Schism,” Ta-nehisi Coates for The Atlantic