Black ExperienceBlack History

Black Gold Star Widows Historically Slighted by Government

The Journal of American History wants the public to remember past accounts of Black Gold Star widows and mothers having been snubbed by the federal government.

On Monday, the journal tweeted:

The tweet includes a link to the article, “The Crowning Insult”: Federal Segregation and the Gold Star Mother and Widow Pilgrimages of the Early 1930s,” by Rebecca Jo Plant and Frances M. Clarke. Looking back to the 1930s, the poignant 2015 article details the government’s segregated program of bringing Gold Star mothers and widows to World War I cemeteries in Europe to honor their loved ones.

“Today largely forgotten, the government’s discriminatory treatment of the Black Gold Star mothers and wives ranked high among the concerns that preoccupied Black journalists and activists in 1930,” writes Clarke, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia, and Plant, an associate professor in the History Department at the University of California, San Diego.

The journal’s tweet was posted the same day President Donald Trump refuted Myeshia Johnson’s account of his condolence call that Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, said made her “upset and cry even more.”

“That’s what made me upset and cry even more because my husband was an awesome soldier,” Myeshia Johnson said.

During World War I, when writer James Weldon Johnson read that “Negro Gold Star mothers would not be allowed to sail on the same ship with the white gold-star mothers” but instead would travel separately on “a second-class vessel,” he wrote a poem in protest, according to the journal article, which is freely accessible through Nov. 20.

Also outraged by the program, Black male journalists penned articles in hopes of pressuring the government to reverse its decision of segregating the women. When that didn’t work, male activists contacted Black women urging them to boycott the program.

“Approximately 25 women canceled their reservations and never made the pilgrimage,” the authors write. “In the end, however, 279 mothers and widows joined one of six all-Black groups that traveled during the spring and summer of 1930 through 1933.”

Clarke and Plant told Process, a blog, that some of the Black women who decided to go on the pilgrimage were “deeply conflicted.”

“For instance, we found cases in which a woman made a reservation, then cancelled it upon hearing the pilgrimages would be segregated and sent a letter of protest to Washington, then made and cancelled another reservation, and ultimately sailed with the very last group,” the authors said.

Plant and Clarke’s research included reading Black newspapers of the time, such as the Chicago Defender, and papers of the NAACP. But to gain a greater understanding of Black women’s responses to the government and male activists, they researched the papers of the National Association of Colored Women and Nannie Burroughs, Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell, “all leading Black clubwomen.”

The authors also said, “Letters sent to Herbert Hoover and the National Archives’ extensive collection of papers on Gold Star mother pilgrimages, constituted the bulk of the material we drew on when writing the paper we originally submitted to the Journal of American History.”

The irony of the government’s program is that it recognized the civic contributions of the Black women “as war mothers and widows in an unprecedented and lavish manner” during their stay in Europe. Yet, it still adhered to the racist Jim Crow laws of the U.S. Black women wanting to grieve their husbands and sons had to do so under the country’s ideology that they were less than white women.

“Integrated pilgrimages not only threatened to alienate whites — particularly white southerners —but also to compromise the program’s effectiveness as a nationalist gesture,” the authors write.

“In the end, the logic of martial citizenship prevailed only to a limited extent; it seems that no one publicly argued that the African-American mothers and widows should be denied this unique government benefit.”

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