Centennial commissions across the nation are hard at work organizing events to showcase the role their state played in World War I. Texas is no exception. Working with the Texas World War I Centennial Commemoration, East Texas Historical Association and the project director, Dr. Lila Rakoczy, have put together an advisory committee made up of university-based academics, family members of World War I veterans, and community stakeholders. This program is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Summerlee Foundation, private donors, H.E.B., and Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities
This program is also part of World War I and America, a two-year national initiative of Library of America presented in partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and other organizations, with generous support from The National Endowment for the Humanities.
This multi-stage project will unfold over the next several years. The No Man’s Land: East Texas African Americans in WWI exhibition begins its two-year tour in June 2017 and will run through May 2019. A searchable database will be added to the website in 2018, providing access to veteran documents, photographs, archival links, and oral histories.
True Sons of Freedom, broadside by Charles Gustrine, Chicago, Illinois, 1918. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)
Why World War I?
April 2017 will mark the hundredth anniversary of America’s entry into the First World War. This war is poorly remembered within the United States: a 2014 YouGov poll showed that while 76% of Americans believe the history of World War I is relevant today, only half can correctly name the year hostilities began, and only a little over a third know when the US entered the war.
This lack of cultural memory is at odds with the actual importance of this war. At a state and national level, it accelerated African American migration to cities within Texas and beyond, and ushered in the “New Negro” phase of African American activism. At an individual level, its impact was both positive and negative, in some cases completely altering the trajectories of people’s lives. Those stories deserve to be told.
Why “No Man’s Land”?
Few phrases are as synonymous with the First World War. Made up of the stretch of land between two entrenched militarized positions, “No Man’s Land” was the contested ground uncontrolled by either side on the Western Front of Belgium and France: cratered and muddy from regular bombing, subjected to gas and sniper attacks, and littered with unexploded ordnance. Despite its name, men often found themselves navigating—and dying—within this hellish landscape called “No Man’s Land”. The very term conjures up the senseless casualties that happen in wars of attrition.
The project name No Man’s Land is a nod to these wartime horrors, but also serves as a reminder of the challenges facing African Americans at home. Black men and women found themselves disenfranchised from the political system, racially profiled and harassed by law enforcement, their successes resented and their behavior (including labor choices) scrutinized, criticized, and controlled. African American men in particular were forced into an impossible situation: expected to be patriotic and serve their country, but not granted the recognition of being men in the fullest sense of the word. In many ways they walked equally contested ground, in their own war of attrition that would continue for many decades to come.
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Why East Texas?
When the United States officially entered the conflict in 1917 it was largely unprepared and scrambled to mobilize a still segregated army through a combination of enlistment and selective service. In Texas alone nearly one million men aged 21 to 30 registered for the draft. Not counting African Americans already in the regular army, around 370,000 black men nationally found themselves inducted and their lives transformed: most in various types of labor and support battalions, some in combat on the Western Front, and a handful serving in the nation’s navy. The numbers for those affected were particularly striking for Texas: over 30,000 men, or a quarter of all Texans called up, were African Americans, despite being only 16% of the Texas population. Several were commissioned officers.
MEMORANDUM: Disposal of the Colored Drafted Men
Most of this history is not widely known, although some progress has been made. Northern African American men have rightly received their due recognition, especially the much admired “Harlem Hellfighters” of the famous 369th Infantry Regiment. Their “backwoods” counterparts in the South, however, are still to this day dismissed as “just” laborers, relegated to stevedore and labor battalions because of a supposed lack of education and skills. The reality is that early twentieth-century East Texas mirrored the growth and changes occurring nationally. Grassroots efforts by educators in East Texas, assisted by historical black colleges like Wiley College, Bishop College, and Prairie View Normal and Industrial College, offered increasing opportunities for African American youth. This was matched by diversifying economies spanning the cotton, timber, oil, and shipping industries. East Texas in the 1910s and 1920s was a dynamic—and at times volatile—period. The men who served from East Texas, and the experiences of those who remained on the home front, reflect this diversity.
Counties in the No Man’s Land Project
Everyone has an opinion about how to define East Texas. Apologies to those who disagree, but we've defined it as making up the following counties:
Anderson, Angelina, Bowie, Camp, Cass, Chambers, Cherokee, Delta, Franklin, Gregg, Hardin, Harrison, Henderson, Hopkins, Houston, Jasper, Jefferson, Lamar, Liberty, Marion, Montgomery, Morris, Nacogdoches, Newton, Orange, Panola, Polk, Rains, Red River, Rusk, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Shelby, Smith, Titus, Trinity, Tyler, Upshur, and Van Zandt