In the spring of 1919, nearly six months after World War I ground to a halt, a largely forgotten event in Black history, a story that all schoolchildren — and journalists — should know, began to unfold.
At the center of this was W.E.B. DuBois, whose legacy is remembered during Black History Month and the commemoration of the 155th anniversary of his birth.
In late April of that year, 100,000 copies of Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, were locked in a back room of New York City’s main post office. The order to delay the mailing of the May issue of the civil rights organization’s publication came from Robert A. Bowen, a mid-level federal official who headed a censorship office in the Department of Justice.
Officially called the Bureau of Translations and Radical Publications, this wartime creation of the federal government was obsessed with silencing those whose views it objected to. The bureau was charged with monitoring the mail for “any suspicious journals, magazines, or newspapers that its agent believed was dangerous propaganda,” journalist Ann Hagedorn wrote in her book, “Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919.”
Bowen, a South Carolina native who was born just three years after the Civil War ended, routinely targeted Black publications such as the Negro World, New York Age, Amsterdam News and the Chicago Defender for censorship. He was offended by the way they defended and advocated for Blacks at home and decried the government’s treatment of Black soldiers who went abroad to fight for democracy in Europe.
But Bowen was especially scornful of the NAACP’s publication. Crisis, he said, was “insolently abusive of the country,” largely because of the writings of DuBois, its editor. In the May 1919 issue, DuBois called on Black soldiers, whom he had encouraged a year earlier to go abroad to fight for freedom, to join the struggle of Blacks for freedom at home.
Pointing out that for 50 years — even throughout the war — Blacks had been lynched at a rate of two per week, DuBois, who lived in Baltimore’s Morgan Park neighborhood from 1939 to 1949, wrote in an editorial titled “Returning Soldiers”:
“This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought! But it is our fatherland. It was the right fight. The faults of our country are our faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.”
Bowen saw DuBois’s call for returning soldiers to challenge lynching of Blacks — and other Jim Crow practices — as radical journalism that the government should suppress. Never mind that in a July 1918 editorial titled “Close Ranks,” DuBois had urged Black men: “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”
Bowen thought DuBois was trying to incite returning Black soldiers to violence with his July 1919 editorial, even though the NAACP, from its founding in 1909, had been a proponent of nonviolent agitation that sought to end lynching and other acts of racism that Blacks were made to suffer.
According to Hagedorn, the NAACP quickly got its supporters from “women’s clubs, business leagues, church groups and trade unions” to send telegrams to the postmaster general’s office protesting the censorship.”
Eventually, feeling the pressure, the postmaster general overrode Bowen’s decision and allowed the NAACP’s magazine to be mailed to its subscribers. But the government’s mistreatment of Crisis and other Black publications was just the most glaring evidence of how officials had a free hand in suppressing Black journalists.
The same month that the federal government relented and allowed the May issue of Crisis to be mailed, it refused to give William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Boston Guardian, a passport to travel to Paris while the postwar peace conference was being held. Like many journalists of his time, Trotter wore two hats. He was an acerbic newspaperman and a champion of the Black race.
The administration of Woodrow Wilson feared that in either role, Trotter would raise uncomfortable questions about the president’s advocacy of democracy abroad and his reluctance to ensure democracy for Blacks at home.
But like DuBois, Trotter fought back. He got a job as a cook’s assistant on a merchant ship headed to France and once there, slipped ashore without a passport. He sent dispatches home to the Guardian and letters to French newspapers, which published many of them.
The journalism of neither DuBois nor Trotter brought about the changes they sought in 1919, and their efforts are little-remembered chapters of Black history that sparked the fight for racial justice that continues today.
DeWayne Wickham is the public editor for The Baltimore Banner.