For African-Americans, the 20th century was fraught with contrasts. There was the glowing promise of equality in the nation’s charters and there was the actual bigotry that shadowed and shrank that promise. Bill Moyers is joined by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who re-create, in dramatic dialogue and often in original settings, the world of 20th-century black America. This episode covers 1900 to 1920.
BILL MOYERS: These are the great documents of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. They’re 200 years old, and we’re still struggling to interpret them in our everyday lives. I’m Bill Moyers. From the very beginning, these documents contained an ignoble contradiction that has been with us ever since. The Declaration of Independence did indeed claim that all men are created equal, endowed with the same basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But of course, all people were not treated equally, and the Constitution was drawn so as to reflect that reality. For the purpose of determining representation in Congress, the Constitution counted a black as only 3/5 of a person, and it didn’t even give him 3/5 of a vote. Black people were brought here against their will as slaves, assumed to be creatures unequal in nature and thus inferior, something less than human.
That prejudice tragically informed the American experience for a long time to come. It wasn’t until the 1860s that we amended the Constitution to extend legal and political equality to blacks in principle. In fact, their rights were ignored for nearly another century or subverted by chicanery, custom, and force. How they stood the humiliation and anguish of that long subjugation is one of the great testimonies of all time to the irrepressible spirit of a people in bondage. They survived against great odds, and in our century, breathed the second wind into the American Revolution.
BILL MOYERS: It’s remarkable when you think about it. Most blacks living at the turn of this century had been born slaves or were sons and daughters of slaves. They were still treated as second class citizens, yet they refused to give up on the promise in the Declaration of Independence. Their struggle in our century to pursue the elusive dream is a story set aglow by the narratives of men and women who lived it.
It’s the story we want to tell in this broadcast and again next week. I say “we” because journalism alone cannot do this story justice. It is, in one respect, an inside story. It has to have been part of you. So I’ve asked two of my favorite storytellers to share it with us. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are more than storytellers. They’re artists and participants. This is their story, and they’ll speak in their own words and in the words of their black brothers and sisters of this century. They will call on collective and individual memories, which are the raw material of journalism and history, as well as the heart of the human experience.
RUBY DEE: On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law. The words in the document were like those words in the Bible. “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.” For us, January 1 was more than the start of a new year. January 1 was Emancipation Day.
There he sits in all his marble magnificence, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. At the end of the Civil War and for 10 years during Reconstruction, it looked as if America was glad to be rid of slavery, that it really meant to keep Lincoln’s promise. But in a few short years, America changed its mind. Things went from bad to worse. We weren’t slaves anymore, but we weren’t free either.
This splendid monument to Lincoln was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1922. At the festivities, white people could sit anywhere they wanted to, but black people, many of them prominent lawyers, doctors, bankers, businessmen, was segregated, put around to the sides and the back. I wonder what the Great Emancipator would’ve said about that.
OSSIE DAVIS: This is West 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan. The left and behind me, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall. Further along, Broadway and the theatrical district. This block itself hasn’t got much. Glass, granite, tall buildings, traffic, kind of place you pass through going somewhere else. But on January 1, 1901, this was the heart of Negro New York.
OSSIE DAVIS: This was the street where stood the Marshall Hotel, the place to usher in the new year right. The new year, the new century, the joy of Emancipation Day, all celebrated at once with the finest food, the best French champagne, and the latest in elegant attire. It was a time to be black and brag about it.
Bob Cole, who lived at the Marshall, would surely have been there and feeling good. His play, A Trip to Coontown, the first non-minstrel show produced by, directed by, and starring blacks, had made him famous. Scott Joplin at the piano, maybe trying out a brand new rag on the crowd, while the couples strutted the latest dance craze that was sweeping the nation, the cake walk. Surely the Johnson brothers, James Weldon and Jay Rosamond would have been there, just up from Florida with their new song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Charles W Chestnutt, autographing a copy of his new novel, the first work of black fiction published in America, chatting, perhaps, with Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose self-published book of poetry had made his name a household word. And without a doubt, Bert Williams and George Walker, whose smash hit musical, The Sons of Ham, had made them the first blacks to perform on Broadway. They would have been among the first to raise their glasses in a toast to old Abe Lincoln, the man who caused it all, and of course, to the memory of Frederick Douglass, the man who caused old Abe to cause it all.
Sissieretta Jones, first black opera star, Henry O Tanner, the artist who just won the Medal of Honor at the Paris exposition, perhaps even Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the man who performed the first operation on the heart of a living patient, in town to see the sights. And Ida Wells Barnett, the renowned journalist and newspaper publisher. Jimmy Winkfield, who was to go to the Kentucky Derby later that year and ride His Eminence to an easy victory. Oh, there was much to be thankful for and proud of and high spirited about that New Year’s Day.
RUBY DEE: But not all was noise makers and merriment this January 1. For Congressman George H White of North Carolina, it must have been a time of quiet reflection as he gathered facts and figures in preparation for a speech he was to give before Congress in just a few days. It was to be his farewell address in the House of Representatives, where he was the last of all the black men elected during Reconstruction. And despite the cruelties, intimidation, murder, and so forth, his constituents had come to the polls in record numbers. But there was fraud and a miscounting of ballots on a massive scale. So come March, there would be no black faces in the halls of Congress.
OSSIE DAVIS: This is Booker T Washington. He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry. At the beginning of the 20th century, Booker T Washington was the most powerful and the best-known black man not only in the United States, but in the world. Or, as my daddy used to say, the biggest bear in the bushes. He wrote a book called Up From Slavery, which told the whole story. It became an immediate bestseller.
The book told how he had been born a slave in a little shack on a plantation in Virginia, was seven years old at Emancipation, poor, illiterate, hungry, how he worked so hard and so long to get an education, and once he got it, how he dreamed and struggled to bring it to the rest of his people. The opportunity to do that came to Booker at Tuskegee, Alabama, where they needed someone to build a normal school– that’s a school for teaching teachers– and he was just the man for the job.
Starting with an old chapel and a handful of students, Booker T Washington opened Tuskegee in 1881. He believed that the salvation of the Negro race was manual labor, things that a man or woman could do with their hands, farming, building, cooking, sewing, animal husbandry, shoemaking, and the like. And so Booker T Washington and his students with their own hands, brick by brick, built the school. And over the next 20 years, it became one of the major educational institutions in the South.
OSSIE DAVIS: Consider now the world as it must have looked to Booker T Washington while he was building this miracle called Tuskegee Institute. The Civil War was over. Reconstruction was dead. And political coalitions between blacks and whites trying to vote their common interests failed miserably at the ballot box. The 14th Amendment might just as well have never been written. Lynching, peonage rape, pillage, even murder was commonplace. None of the crimes against black folks were ever punished.
The black folks were getting impatient, the South was getting stubborn, and the North was getting bored. Somebody had to do something quick, before the situation between the races got completely out of hand. While traveling all over the country to raise funds to build Tuskegee, Booker met many rich and powerful men, industrialists, philanthropists, some of whom became his mentors, his idols, and even his friends. Like Andrew Carnegie, for whom he named this building, the founder of US steel, John D Rockefeller, the father of Standard Oil, for whom he had a building over there, John Henry Ford, Thomas Alva Edison.
Now, all of these men had started out poor like Booker, and by sheer pluck and grit, self determination and hard work, each had built an empire, and in the process had become the richest, most powerful men in America. Booker listened, and Booker learned. Business, the bigger the better, and not reform, was America’s new religion. Industry had to come first, not civil rights, if the South was ever to get back on its feet.
And that black people as a natural pool of cheap and available labor could provide the base for a new economic order in the South with wealth enough for everybody, especially for those who, like Booker T Washington, had already proved they knew exactly what to do with all that wealth. All that was needed was somebody big enough, powerful enough, with grit and gumption enough and vision to pull the whole thing together. And Booker, after thinking long and hard, concluded that that somebody was him. Everything he accomplished at Tuskegee proved it.
OSSIE DAVIS: But how could he, a black man, prove to the rest of the nation that he had been sent into the world to redeem the South? His chance came in 1895, when Professor Booker T Washington was invited to come to the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition and make one of the opening day speeches. Every day, Booker would come into his study and practice that speech. He had to be careful. He would be polite, thank the board of directors.
“This magnificent exposition”– he would begin– “will do more to cement the friendship between the races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.” And then he would make sure they understood that black folks no longer depended on the Congress or the courts or on politics. “Ignorant and inexperienced”– he would continue– “it is not strange that in the early years of our new life, we began at the top instead of at the bottom, that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill.”
But if politics was not to be the solution, what was? Business. “Bear in mind,” Booker would continue, “whatever other sins the South must bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world.” And what was Booker prepared to sacrifice in exchange for this man’s chance in the commercial world? The 14th Amendment.
OSSIE DAVIS: “The wisest among my race understand that agitation of the questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that all progress and the privileges which will come to us must be the result of constant and severe struggle and not of artificial forcing. Then all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all that is essential to mutual progress.” And then, as if to make absolutely certain they understood his good intentions, Booker would hand black labor over into the tender mercies of old master and the plantation economy.
“As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children and watching over the sick beds of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our own humble way, we will stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives if need be in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil and religious life with yours, in a way that will make the interest of both races one.
RUBY DEE: Bravo, bravo, hurray. For white America, that speech was dynamite, a solid smash. But not for us. The interests of both races never did become one.
OSSIE DAVIS: Well, was Booker alone to blame for all of that? Did any of his rich and powerful friends, the men he admired and respected so much, did any of them ever give Booker’s plan a chance?
RUBY DEE: Our rights are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, not by Booker T Washington and this friends.
OSSIE DAVIS: Well, since when has America paid any attention to the Constitution where black folks were concerned? Booker was a realist. He was trying to make a deal.
RUBY DEE: Yes, and a hell of a deal it was too. It took us 60 years to get halfway out from under it.
OSSIE DAVIS: Well, whatever you say. It certainly worked for Booker.
OSSIE DAVIS: Money poured into Tuskegee from all over, especially from Booker’s northern white philanthropist friends, like George Foster Peabody, William H Baldwin, and especially Andrew Carnegie. Invitations to speak came from all over the country, and he was not one to turn down the opportunity to spread the Tuskegee idea. And speak he did, wherever a crowd would gather, in rail yards, at political rallies, before groups of farmers.
Booker’s opinion was sought by whites and blacks, high and low, about every aspect of black life, especially in the South. Soon he had veto power over all the educational funds to all the institutions in the South, as well as over who should be appointed to political office. Without knowing it, without really seeking it, Booker T Washington became one of the biggest power brokers in the Republican Party.
BILL MOYERS: It was in 1896 that the Supreme Court gave official constitutional blessing to Booker T Washington’s deal in a landmark decision, Plessy v Ferguson. Homer Plessy, a citizen of Louisiana who was just one eighth black, was ordered to move out of a street car seat reserved for whites only. When he refused, he was arrested. In court, he contended that segregated seating was a violation of his right under the 14th Amendment.
No, said the court. The states could separate the races so long as their accommodations were equal. The result was to leave the fate of black Americans to the states for each to decide as it saw fit. There followed a flood of laws that carried an odd and ugly name, Jim Crow. Jim Crow was originally a comic character in a minstrel show song, then by extension, any black. And finally, it was the label for a whole body of statutes and customs designed to put the Negro down and keep him down.
RUBY DEE: In short order, Jim Crow laws were rushed onto the books, making it illegal for blacks and whites to drink from the same water fountain–
OSSIE DAVIS: Go to the same toilets–
RUBY DEE: Sleep in the same hotel–
OSSIE DAVIS: Eat at the same table–
RUBY DEE: Be sick and die at the same hospital or get buried in the same cemetery–
OSSIE DAVIS: Live in the same neighborhood–
RUBY DEE: Use the same phone booth–
OSSIE DAVIS: Or, in some instances, to look out of the same window at the same time.
RUBY DEE: If a black male looked at a white female from less than the proscribed distance, he could be jailed for aggravated assault.
OSSIE DAVIS: But perhaps the most devastating of all was what Jim Crow did to the minds of hundreds of thousands of black children seated in segregated classrooms for the next 60 years.
RUBY DEE: One of the people who saw most clearly where all of this was leading was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.
OSSIE DAVIS: He was born a free man in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to poor but free parents. Du Bois was the only black student in his high school graduating class. The pastors and congregations of four white churches were so impressed with his scholarship and abilities that they raised the money to guarantees his tuition to all-black Fisk University. It was while at Fisk that he met the first black people he had known outside of his own family. It was at Fisk he learned to love his people.
RUBY DEE: If America had had an aristocracy, Dr. Du Bois would certainly have qualified, color notwithstanding. At least that’s what my mother thought. She was one of his students in his classes of history and economics at Atlanta University. It was a matter of some pride to be allowed to attend one of Dr. Du Bois’s classes, and no one dared be late or be caught not paying attention. Out, he would insist. And you knew he meant business. He was, in mother’s eyes, the most educated man in the United States, in the world. Ordered, precise, disciplined. With a sense of humor too, a wit, a scholar.
RUBY DEE: He was the first black man to receive a doctorate from Harvard, and his brilliant research in the new science of sociology won him a gold medal at the Paris Exposition for his study of black American accomplishments. He truly believed that in science lay the answer to the question of race in America, that science could prove the black American’s equality, measure for measure. He believed in the life of the mind. Du Bois felt that Booker T’s solution was fine as far as it went.
What Washington had done at Tuskegee Institute was nothing short of a miracle. But what about higher education? What about that special kind of training that was needed to build black leaders? Schools like Tuskegee and Hampton that had the nod from Booker T Washington were heavily supported by rich white northerners, while schools that taught intellectual pursuits were dying on the vine, like Fisk and Wilberforce and his very own Atlanta University.
RUBY DEE: Du Bois saw this as an insult, a crime against the aspirations and intellect of black America. He absolutely refused to accept a second class education or anything else for black people. He fought to the end to get them the very best that was available. And in so doing, he collided head on with Booker T Washington and the Tuskegee machine.
OSSIE DAVIS: Well, if WEB Du Bois was such an ardent opponent of Booker T Washington, how do you explain the fact that immediately after the 1895 speech, one of the first people to write Booker a letter of congratulations was that same WEB Du Bois?
RUBY DEE: Why not? I mean, if America would build a black Harvard equal to the white one, I mean, first class hospitals and schools and theaters and banks and railroads, I mean, what would be so wrong with separate but equal?
OSSIE DAVIS: But it didn’t work. It couldn’t work.
RUBY DEE: Because it wasn’t meant to. But don’t blame Du Bois because he wanted to be away from white America as much as it wanted to be away from him. Separate, as long as it was equal, was right up his alley.
BILL MOYERS: But the plain fact was, while Du Bois’s ear was cocked to hear separate and equal, white Americans wanted to hear only the sound of the one word, separate. Booker T Washington found favor with him because he seemed willing to hear it that way too. To honor him was an acceptable way for whites to acknowledge that blacks were capable of separate achievements, but not of true equality. It was also the way for a smart politician to woo the very small, brave, and Republican black vote that had survived in the South. There was no politician of the day smarter, or more genuinely inclined to risk a bold step, than that progressive Republican in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt.
OSSIE DAVIS: Booker T Washington had dined with some of the crowned heads of Europe, high tea with Her Royal Majesty the Queen Victoria of England. But nothing compared with having an invitation to have dinner at the White House with President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, their daughter Alice and one of their sons and two members of the Cabinet. What a golden opportunity we felt for Booker and for us to tell the president about the 130 lynchings that year, about the Ku Klux Klan, the burnings, the beatings, the pillage, and the rape. About our votes were being stolen, about jobs, about a better education for our children. Besides, black soldiers had saved Teddy Roosevelt’s hide at the Battle of El Caney in the Spanish-American War. He owed us something. We could hardly wait for Booker to come back and tell us the news.
OSSIE DAVIS: Yes, yes. Well, the dinner was excellent, Booker told us. The roast was superb. The president insisted on carving it himself. He has asked me to extend his warmest personal regards to the Negro people of America and his wish that they should remain staunch Republicans. No word at all about our major concerns. But what then about those political plums the president usually gives out to other staunch Republicans? All Booker had was two jobs, two minor political appointments, and one of them to a white man.
And even that threw the South into an uproar. A Mississippi politician, enraged that President Roosevelt should have dinner with a black man, called Teddy Roosevelt a dog and then apologized to the dog. Roosevelt never made that mistake again. Yes, Booker T Washington and some of his friends did manage from time to time to eat high on the political hog. But for the rest of us, it was our usual, a plate full of crow, Jim Crow. And we’d had just about a belly full of that.
BILL MOYERS: Politics is always something of a poker game. But what put Booker T Washington in the extraordinary predicament was that he had to play in two games at once. At the table with the white power brokers, he had but a pair of deuces.
But with respect to black America, he held a full house. He controlled the pipeline to white funds. No black office holder, businessman, preacher, college president, or editor could cross him. What Du Bois called “the Tuskegee machine” rolled right over any upstart who had different ideas. That threw black intellectuals into turmoil. They not only had to contend with the white power structure, but right or wrong, for them, Booker T’s paternalism was the only game in town.
RUBY DEE: More and more, black colleges, the church, and especially the black press began to question the direction of Booker T Washington’s leadership. The most vociferous of Washington’s critics was Monroe Trotter, publisher of The Guardian, a newspaper founded solely for the purpose of attacking the Tuskegee machine.
OSSIE DAVIS: Though reluctant at first, WEB Du Bois was finally persuaded by Monroe Trotter, to join in the battle. And, together in 1905, they issued a call that brought 29 black man to a meeting at Niagara Falls, New York. They had to meet on the Canadian side of the falls because hotels on the American side didn’t cater to blacks.
RUBY DEE: No women were invited to this initial meeting because there was no guarantee of safety. But at the next meeting one year later, women were in full attendance.
OSSIE DAVIS: The men and women of the Niagara Movement met here, at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, the scene of John’s Brown bloody prelude to the Civil War. They walked barefoot down through the Main Street of the town to the riverside, and there, they issued an address to the country.
RUBY DEE: Our demands are clear and unequivocal. First, we should vote. With the right to vote goes everything, freedom, manhood, the honor of our wives, the chastity of our daughters, the right to work, and a chance to rise. And let no one listen to those who deny this.
OSSIE DAVIS: We want full manhood suffrage. We want it now, henceforth, and forever.
RUBY DEE: We want discrimination in public accommodation to cease.
OSSIE DAVIS: We claim the right of free men to walk, talk, and be with those who want to be with them.
RUBY DEE: We want the laws enforced against rich as well as poor, against capitalist as well as laborer, against white as well as black. We are not more lawless than the white race. We are more often arrested, convicted, and mobbed.
OSSIE DAVIS: We want justice, even for criminals and outlaws. We want the Constitution enforced.
RUBY DEE: We want our children educated.
OSSIE DAVIS: We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be. And we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings or simply for the use of others. They have a right to know.
RUBY DEE: To think.
OSSIE DAVIS: To aspire. And these are the chief things which we want.
RUBY DEE: And how shall we get them? By voting where we may vote.
OSSIE DAVIS: By persistent and unceasing agitation.
RUBY DEE: By hammering at the truth.
OSSIE DAVIS: By sacrifice and work.
RUBY DEE: We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid, nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob.
OSSIE DAVIS: But we do believe in John Brown, and that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, and that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right.
RUBY DEE: And here, on this scene of his martyrdom–
OSSIE DAVIS: We reconsecrate ourselves–
RUBY DEE: Ourselves.
OSSIE DAVIS: Our honor–
RUBY DEE: Our honor.
OSSIE DAVIS: Our property–
RUBY DEE: Our property.
OSSIE DAVIS: To the final emancipation–
OSSIE DAVIS AND RUBY DEE: To the final emancipation of the race which John Brown died to make free!
BILL MOYERS: Those were demands, not a polite petition for conciliation. When I hear them, I hear the ringing spirit behind the Declaration of Independence. Many years earlier, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass had said that power concedes nothing without demand.
But how could people so economically and politically impoverished make their demands heard? Well, the Niagara Movement brought the idea of open resistance back into currency. Agitation, confrontation, protest. Weren’t those the methods by which the white colonies had won their independence?
Out of the Niagara Movement grew the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, and the modern civil rights struggle. These leaders realized that the Constitution could be their ally too, despite that narrow interpretation by the Chief Justices in Plessy v Ferguson. What the court had done the court could undo.
Ah, but the frustrations that lay ahead. Whites would look back and label this era of American history as progressive. It wasn’t for blacks. It was more hard times, their hopes not withstanding. Even Broadway had closed its doors to black performers, who moved uptown to the new capital of black New York, Harlem. There wouldn’t be any victories for a while, except occasionally from unexpected quarters. In 1910, a pair of powerful black fists kept the dreams from fading altogether.
RUBY DEE: It was in a gymnasium much like this one that Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion of the world, prepared to defend his title against Jim Jeffries, the Great White Hope. Lerone Bennett Jr. describes that fight in his book, Wade in the Water. He says, never before had so many people come together for an athletic or entertainment event. There were sports and big money men from America, England, Canada, Australia, India, China, Cuba, Brazil, and Burma.
There were hoboes, miners, cowboys, cattle herders, businessmen, politicians, touts, pick pockets, and prostitutes. The population of the town had more than doubled, and special trains were arriving daily from the East coast and the West coast. The main street, Center Street, was virtually impassable. And the lobby of the Golden Hotel where the big spenders were staying was a solid mass of wall to wall people.
And by now, the last week in June, the saloons were crowded, and people were standing four and five deep around the roulette and crap tables. The most celebrated crooks in America were already in attendance, and others were expected. Cincinnati Slim was there. The Sundance Kid, according to rumors, was on his way. And there was still betting in Chicago and Galveston and New York and London and Berlin and in thousands of cities and hamlets all over this world.
RUBY DEE: But the cause of all this excitement, all this passion, was not a political crisis. It wasn’t a natural catastrophe. It was a prize fight. The 1910 contest between Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and Jim Jeffries, the Great White Hope of the Western world. The Johnson Jeffries fight was invested with a cosmic significance. This was no simple clash of two men.
It was a clash of elemental forces. It was about sin and redemption. It was about the forces of evil and the avenging blond warrior. It was Gotterdammerung. It was Revelations. It was Captain Ahab and the white whale, Bigger and Mary. Hemingway’s the white snows of Kilimanjaro. Rudyard Kipling’s the lesser breeds outside the law. And it was real.
RUBY DEE: On Monday, July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, a dusty little town in the Wild West, the avenging warrior and the black champion were going to climb into the ring and fight for 45 rounds, or until one of them was maimed or beaten into unconscious. This was a world, a world of triumphant white supremacy, in which the drama of the Johnson Jeffries fight unfolded. It was a world that whites were defending and blacks were attacking in and through the person of John Arthur Johnson.
That night, Johnson punished Jim Jeffries. He taunted him and sent him crashing to the floor, beaten for the first time in his career. By midnight, at least 11 black people were reported killed. And no one will ever know how many were actually killed on that July night because a black man whipped a white man in a prize fight in Nevada. It was hard to swallow, those 11 deaths. But we did because we knew that Jack had beaten their hope and given us ours.
BILL MOYERS: In 1915, time and history pulled the rug out from under Booker T Washington. And as quickly as floods, boll weevils, and the Klan pushed blacks north, northern factories sucked them in as they rushed to supply the Allies at the onset of World War I. At first, it must have felt like freedom. Jobs were plentiful, pay was good, and their new neighbors seemed much too busy to pay them any undue attention.
In 1917, America entered the war against the Kaiser to make the world safe for democracy and was immediately embarrassed by her own slogan. The problem was that the Army didn’t know what to do with the black Americans who wanted to fight for democracy. WEB Du Bois and the NAACP urged blacks to join, but only if they could be led into battle by black officers, officers like Colonel Charles Young, a distinguished veteran who served under General John J Pershing in the American Southwest.
The Army wasn’t sure it wanted black fighting men in Europe at all. And as for putting them under black command, well, the authorities conveniently discovered that Colonel Young had a sudden case of high blood pressure and was ready for retirement, not combat. The colonel disagreed and rode all the way from Ohio to Washington, DC on horseback to prove his fitness, to no avail.
OSSIE DAVIS: Wanting to fight and being turned down was nothing new to us. As far back as 1911, black men have had to organize a regiment of their own out of their own pockets. Having no weapons, they drilled with broomsticks. It took a long, hard fight in the state legislature, and a declaration of war, before the Fighting 15th, as they were called, was finally admitted into the National Guard. They were sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where local citizens were violent in their outrage.
Their next stop was on Long Island, right next door to units from Alabama and Mississippi. There was trouble the night they arrived. And, by the next evening, the Fighting 15th was well on its way to Europe. When they arrived, the American expeditionary forces refused to accept them into the Rainbow Division. Black, they said, was not a color of the rainbow. They would be allowed, however, to work as laborers. The French Army, desperate for manpower, offered a solution. Let the blacks fight for France. And fight they did.
OSSIE DAVIS: As the 369th infantry regiment, their valor is a matter of public record. They endured 191 days in the trenches, more than any other American soldiers. They were the first Allied soldiers into Germany and won more medals for conspicuous bravery than any of their fellow Americans, the distinguished service cross, the Croix De Guerre.
But America did not see them as heroes. The War Department sent Major Robert R Moton, the new president of Tuskegee Institute, over to warn them. Don’t expect to be treated as conquering heroes when you come home. America is not France, and you are still Negroes. But the proud men of the 369th were not to be denied. On the afternoon of February 17, 1919, New York gave them a welcome home that made it all seem worthwhile. One eyewitness account describes it this way.
RUBY DEE: I was strolling up Fifth Avenue during my lunch time with a lot of my buddies from school when we heard the fanfare of bugles and the booming drums of a marching band. Now, I can’t remember the papers had said anything about a parade. There were lots of them before, during, and after the war. But even before the troops appeared, the sidewalks from buildings to curbs were jammed with spectators, for there was something off about this parade right from the start. You see, most of the other parades came down Fifth Avenue. This one was moving uptown. We soon saw why.
RUBY DEE: Back from the Rhine to get the applause of their city and of Harlem were the troops known in France as the 369th US infantry, but known to New York as the Harlem Hell Fighters. Not til many years later would I understand the reason for the great impression of steel helmeted power those of us on the sidelines saw that day.
The 369th was marching in a formation that they had learned under the French command, the dramatic phalanx. Shoulder to shoulder, from curb to curb, they stretched in great mass squares 35 feet wide by 35 feet long of men, helmets, and bayonets. They tramped far up the avenue in an endless mass of dark skinned, grim faced, heavy booted veterans of many a French battlefield.
Then we heard the music. Somewhere in the line of march was Jim Europe and his band that the French had heard before we ever did. Major Little claims they played no jazz until they got to Harlem later that day, but if what we heard along the curbs was not jazz, it was the best substitute for it I’ve ever heard in my life. All I know is, my high school friends and I stepped out into the middle of the street with great hordes of other spectators, and we swung up Fifth Avenue behind the 369th and the fantastic 60-piece band that was beating out those rhythms that could be heard all the way down at our end of the parade. As Major Little said later, New York City on February 17, 1919 knew no color line.
OSSIE DAVIS: 1919, a year of celebration, but also a year of tribulation, even of humiliation. 25 race riots that one long, red hot summer. Whatever victories we may have racked up in France, in America, the assault against black folks never stopped.
RUBY DEE: But we were not the only victims of the spirit of the times. Remember, Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, launched a scathing attack against American Jews.
OSSIE DAVIS: And the Ku Klux Klan, claiming to defend Nordic supremacy against blacks, Jews, and Catholics, grew to solid membership of between three and six million people.
RUBY DEE: Finding themselves unwelcome, American immigrants began to agitate. Irish American for Irish Independence. Jewish Americans for our Homeland in Palestine. On every side, loud calls came to send the immigrants back where they came from.
OSSIE DAVIS: And there was one black man who didn’t think the idea of going back where we came from was bad at all.
BILL MOYERS: This was the man, Marcus Aurelius Garvey. Born in the West Indies, he came to Harlem in 1916 and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. His aim was to take black Americans home, home to the mother continent. His rallying cry, Africa for the Africans. In one way, he blended into that rich pageant of American promoters, utopians, and tub thumpers who constantly thread their way through our history. In another way, he was unique. In 10 incredible years of oratory and organizing, he whipped up a mass movement that gave a new twist to the word Afro-American. Only in Harlem could Marcus Garvey have happened at all.
RUBY DEE: At first, we were too deep in our misery to even notice him.
OSSIE DAVIS: Being patient and polite, like Booker had suggested, hadn’t worked.
RUBY DEE: Clamoring for our rights as American citizens, as Du Bois demanded, hadn’t worked.
OSSIE DAVIS: Prayers, marches, petitions. Nothing had worked. We were down at the bottom and sinking fast.
RUBY DEE: Then suddenly, this sawed-off, hammered-down man with a gold tooth that shone when he smiled came driving his parade right through our misery.
OSSIE DAVIS: It started here, in Bethel AME church in 1919, when Marcus Garvey discovered he had the power. “Harlem,” he told us, “Was the black man’s new Jerusalem, the black man’s capital of the world. But Harlem isn’t anything compared to what we are going to build when we get back to Africa. Up, up, you mighty race!” That’s what he called us. “You can accomplish what you will.”
RUBY DEE: That was good news coming from a black man, and God knows we needed it. Garvey was a showman. His technique was part carnival, part camp meeting, and he was a master at it. There was no television, no motion pictures, no radio. But he was a genius at communicating with the black masses. How? With parades and marching bands, with uniforms and flowing robes, with swords and sashes, with spectacle and color. And yes, with the oldest, surest instrument in the world, the word.
OSSIE DAVIS AND RUBY DEE: Red hot, flying, written, spoken, repeated.
OSSIE DAVIS: The message clear and simple. Hope is deeper than reason. Faith is stronger than fact. The victory belongs to whoever can dream it, believe it, think it, plan it, and build it. Ignore the white man’s religion. We have our own God, and he is black. Forget the white man’s civilization. Ours is older and wiser and black. Let him keep his Constitution. Let him have his Declaration of Independence. We have our own documents. And they are black. America, oh no. It’s not for us. Our home is Africa, with 400 million of her children scattered around the face of the globe. But now, the white man’s days are numbered. And we are going home!
RUBY DEE: There was a flag, red, black, and green.
OSSIE DAVIS: Fighting men, a police force, the African Legion.
RUBY DEE: The Nurses Corps, a Motor Corps.
OSSIE DAVIS: The Dukes of Uganda. The Knight Commanders of the Nile.
RUBY DEE: Newspapers in three languages, meeting halls all over the country, rallies, conventions, with delegates from all over the world.
OSSIE DAVIS: Shops, restaurants, all kinds of businesses, and something more important than that, something so big it was staggering.
RUBY DEE: Something that brought black people by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, down along 135th Street to 12th Avenue, through the heart of the meat packing district, shouting, laughing, in all their Sunday best, coming to see Marcus Garvey.
OSSIE DAVIS: To this very spot, West 135th Street and 12th Avenue. And there, sitting proudly at the dock, was Marcus Garvey’s masterpiece, the Black Star shipping line. Which consisted at that time of one ship, the Yarmouth. But that was soon going to be called the Booker T Washington.
RUBY DEE: Yes, the Yarmouth was the centerpiece. We’ve never seen anything like it before. It was the queen of the Black Star shipping line. It was to be the first of a vast and mighty fleet engaged in the African trade.
OSSIE DAVIS: The flag at the staff was ours.
RUBY DEE: The skipper at the helm was ours.
OSSIE DAVIS: And when the Yarmouth weighed anchor and steamed away from the pier at 135th Street, her cargo was our dreams.
RUBY DEE: And we followed her with our hearts and our hopes.
OSSIE DAVIS: But less than a year later, the Yarmouth began to fall apart, and two more ships were rushed into service before they were ready.
RUBY DEE: Garvey didn’t know it, but the smiling white men from whom he had brought the ships had sold him junk. They were little more than leaky tubs.
OSSIE DAVIS: Now, when it came to dreams, Garvey was his own best convert. But when it came to business, he was as a sheep being led to the slaughter.
RUBY DEE: In December 1921, less than two years after the peak of his power, Garvey’s Black Star line collapsed. One year and many thousands of dollars later, the balance in the bank was $31.22.
OSSIE DAVIS: Bad luck seldom comes by itself. Garvey was soon charged with using the mails to defraud all the investors of the Black Star line out of $800,000. He was tried, convicted, and sent to the federal penitentiary at Atlanta. In 1927, he was pardoned and deported to Jamaica.
RUBY DEE: Garvey’s legacy was double-edged. Exploded hopes, another defeat, another end. But he left us something much more important than that. He left us a new dimension that was permanent. It was caught by the artists, the poets, the novelists, the singers, the musicians, the dancers, the Harlem Renaissance, which was an explosion of black genius that took the world by storm.
OSSIE DAVIS: He left us with a better sense of who we are and where we came from, a wider world and our place in it, and a solid sense of pride to help us deal with prejudice, bigotry, and Jim Crow.
RUBY DEE: Yes, and he left us a feel for power and its possibilities. In unity, there is strength, he said. Here was backdrop and training ground for the Malcolm’s in the Martins and the Medgar’s, for the Ella’s and Angela’s and the Fanny Lou’s and for the Rapp’s and the Forman’s and the Stokely’s and for many, many others that were yet to come.
OSSIE DAVIS: It’s gone now, all that mighty dream. Marcus himself wouldn’t recognize this place. What was once a pier for the ships of the mighty Black Star line is now a place for dumping garbage.
OSSIE DAVIS AND RUBY DEE: What happens to a dream deferred?
RUBY DEE: Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore and then run? What happens to a dream deferred?
OSSIE DAVIS: Does it stink like rotten meat, or crust and sugar over, like a syrupy sweet? What happens to a dream deferred?
RUBY DEE: Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
OSSIE DAVIS: Or does it explode?
BILL MOYERS: As the dream was deferred, generation to generation, each black leader in his way struggled to keep it alive. The struggle would pass to other leadership. Long after Booker T Washington was dead, Marcus Garvey had vanished into obscurity, and WEB Du Bois, though still uncompromising, had passed from young firebrand to traveled elder. New leaders would carry the struggle to mid-century and beyond. And we’ll meet those leaders when the story continues next week. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.