Resource

Black Social Workers at the French Front

An excerpt from Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces that explores the racism African American soldiers and support staff faced while serving their country in France.

Document Text

Summary

The largest Y.M.C.A. hut in France was one built at Camp Lusitania, St. Nazaire, for the use of colored soldiers. It was the first hut built for our boys, and . . . [i]t did serve for 9,000 men, and had, in addition to the dry canteen, a library of 1,500 volumes, a money-order department which sometimes sent out as much as $2,000 a day to home folks; a school room where 1,100 illiterates were taught to read and write; a large lobby for writing letters and playing games; and towards the close of the work, a wet canteen, which served hot chocolate, lemonade and cakes to the soldiers. The largest YMCA hut in France served 9,000 Black soldiers. It included many services, including food, a library, reading lessons, tables for writing letters and playing games, and more.
To this hut one of us was assigned, and served there for nearly nine months. The work was pleasant and profitable to all concerned, and no woman could have received better treatment anywhere than was received at the hands of these 9,000 who helped to fight the battle of St. Nazaire by unloading the great ships that came into the harbor. Among the duties found there were to assist in religious work; to equip a library with books, chairs, tables, decorations, etc., and establish a system of lending books; to write letters for the soldiers; to report allotments that had not been paid; to establish a money order system; to search for lost relatives at home; to do shopping for the boys whose time was too limited to do it themselves; to teach illiterates to read and write; to spend a social hour with those who wanted to tell her their stories of joy or sorrow. One of the authors of this story worked at this hut for nine months. The 9,000 soldiers treated her very well. She organized the library, helped with letter writing and mail, taught soldiers how to read, and was a friend who listened to homesick soldiers.
All of this kept one woman so busy that she found no time to think of anything else, not even to take the ten days’ vacation which was allowed her every four months. In a hut of a similar size among white soldiers, there would have been at least six women, and perhaps eight men. Here the only woman had from two to five male associates. Colored workers everywhere were so limited that one person found it necessary to do the work of three or four.

The woman was so busy she did not have time to take her vacation. She was the only female social worker at that hut. The hut for white soldiers had more social workers. Black social workers had to do the work of three or four people.
The last, and perhaps the most difficult piece of constructive work done by the colored workers, was at Camp Pontanezen, Brest. It has been told in another chapter how one of the writers received Brest as her first appointment, and how she was immediately informed upon her arrival that because of the roughness of the colored men, she would not be allowed to serve them. That woman went away with the determination to return to Brest, and serve the colored men there . . . so after finishing her work in the Leave Area, she and her coworker . . . were finally permitted to go there.

One of the authors was assigned to work at a larger hut when she first arrived, but the military said the Black soldiers were too rough for a woman to work there. She thought this was unfair to those soldiers. The two authors fought to work there and finally received permission.
There were several other large huts at Camp Pontanezen, that were used for long periods exclusively by colored soldiers; but in the absence of colored women, white women, sometimes as many as five in a hut, gave a service that was necessarily perfunctory, because their prejudices would not permit them to spend a social hour with a homesick colored boy, or even to sew on a service stripe, were they asked to do so. There were so few Black social workers that sometimes white social workers were asked to work with Black soldiers. The white social workers only provided the most basic services because of their prejudices against Black soldiers.
But the very fact that they were there showed a change in the policy from a year previous, when a colored woman even was not permitted to serve them.

But the fact that white social workers were sent to the hut was a sign of progress. Earlier, even Black social workers were not allowed to help the Black soldiers.
All told, the Y.M.C.A., with a tremendous army of workers, many of whom were untrained, did a colossal piece of welfare work overseas. The last hut for the colored Americans in France was closed at Camp Pontanezen, Brest, on August 3, 1919, by one of the writers; the two of them having given the longest period of active service of any of the colored women who went overseas. The two authors served in France longer than any other Black woman. They provided a tremendous service to the Black soldiers.

Excerpt from Two Colored women with the American Expeditionary Forces by Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson (Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Eagle Press, ca. 1920).

Print Text
Print Text And Summary

Background

When the United States entered World War I, Black women responded with patriotism. Although many were frustrated with racial inequality nationally, they hoped that contributing to the war effort would improve the state of Black life in America. Through paid and volunteer work, Black women overwhelmingly dedicated themselves to supporting the military, which included 400,000 Black soldiers.

Although war work overseas as social workers, nurses, clerks, cooks, and drivers was almost exclusively available to white women, the YMCA recruited Black men and women to serve as military social workers, officially known as “secretaries,” at the European front. Only 1 percent of all YMCA secretaries were Black, and only nineteen of the eighty-five Black secretaries to serve in France were women. Of those nineteen, only three arrived before the armistice. These three women provided critical social services to the thousands of Black soldiers in France. In addition, they witnessed firsthand the injustices of the segregated Army and became champions for the fight for racial equality at the front and back home.

About the Document

Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson were two of the Black women secretaries to serve in France. Upon their return, they published a detailed account of their work abroad. This is just a short excerpt from their book. In it, they describe the work that they did, how it differed from the work of white secretaries, and how racism interfered with almost every aspect of life for Black soldiers and war workers in France.

Vocabulary

  • armistice: An agreement made by opposing sides of a conflict to temporarily suspend hostilities.
  • canteen: A building where soldiers eat and drink.
  • colossal: Huge and impressive.
  • hut: A simple shelter or building where soldiers could receive certain services and relax during downtime.
  • illiterates: People who cannot read.
  • injustices: Unfair acts.
  • perfunctory: Basic and without enthusiasm.
  • social worker: A person who provides a range of social services, including basic medical care, mental health support, education and training, and more; during WWI, social workers employed by the YMCA were called secretaries.

Discussion Questions

  • What was the role of the YMCA secretaries in France? What kind of work did they do and what services did they provide to soldiers?
  • What were the differences between the services provided for Black soldiers versus white soldiers?
  • How do the authors describe the experience of Black soldiers at the front? What work did Black soldiers do and how were they treated? How might this have affected Black soldiers’ feelings toward the war and their home country?
Print Section

Suggested Activities

Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE; POWER AND POLITICS; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes
Print Section
Print Entire Page