Black WWI veteran refusing to stand down for wearing his uniform in public.

While researching the setting of my novel, I encountered many photos of young Black WWI veterans being threatened by white people—often police officers—for wearing their uniforms in public.  But the one featured here struck an especially deep chord, the valiant young Black man at its center becoming the model for my character, George Gumbs, a childhood friend of Leola’s who opens her eyes to the wages of bigotry.

Scenes like this were common in America at the time (c. 1915-1921). The Equal Justice Initiative recently investigated contemporary reports of racial terrorism during that period, discovering many were triggered by this very situation.  “Just the sight of a black soldier,” the investigators note, “just the suggestion that he might take on that empowered, adult, mature identity—that could get him killed.”

The NAACP’s newspaper, The Crisis, urged Black members to take up the cause for their freedom.

Many historians trace the birth of Black empowerment to African-American participation in the Great War.  By 1917, nearly 700, 000 Black men had signed up to serve in the European theater.  A Black solider was the first person to be awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre for bravery in battle, African-American artillery and signaling units were routinely lauded for their skill, and all-Black regiments held 20 per cent of contested territory. Yet these valiant soldiers returned home to the same brutal oppression inflicted on their people for centuries, and were even denied the pensions and disability payments they’d been promised at enlistment.

No wonder, then, that disenfranchised veterans became the model for what the recently-reinvented NAACP envisaged as the “new Negro,” no longer satisfied to wait for largely ineffectual white supporters to enact change. George Gumbs represents this new brand of Black activist.  Having returned from serving in France, where he became skilled at fixing combustion engines and also got his first real taste of freedom, he’s more impatient than ever for his due. For too long, he says, things been done to us and supposedly for us but never by us. I aim to change that.

A parade in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood featuring the sentiments of “radical” civil rights leaders, including Marcus Garvey, who advocated that Blacks should answer white violence in equal measure.

Though it makes sense when George challenges the kind of everyday degradation he’s been subjected to his whole life, Leola’s witness to his protest leaves her questioning her white supremacist culture as never before. Little can she know that her friend’s political protest will soon take more consequential form, forcing him to flee Texas with his life. Horrified as she is by this development, Leola imagines George returning to their little town someday, marching down Main Street with his fellow supporters, chanting Hew to the Line! Democracy is ours for the taking!  Impossible as it seems, knowing George, she can’t help believing it could come true.

For further reading:  This online archive of the NAACP’s newsletter, The Crisis, provides a fascinating glimpse into this period of Black activism.

 

 

Suzanne MoyersSuzanne Moyers, a former teacher, was an education editor and writer for over 20 years. A lifelong history geek, Suzanne spends her free time as a volunteer archeologist, mudlarker, and metal detectorist. ’Til All These Things Be Done is based on a still unraveling mystery from her own family, and the real-life twist of fate that […]

I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears, and the dragons of home under one’s skin…
                        Maya Angelou

In the midst of writing this novel, I had a chance to return to Texas after many years away.  While there, I visited the orphanage in Waxahachie where my grandmother and her siblings lived after their mother’s death in 1919. The ‘Home’, as it is still known, exists in some form on the same spot as the original complex, but now serves a foster care facility and adoption agency.

The staff showed me some old photos, including the aerial shot, below, of the complex in the 1940s or 50’s.  The boxy building on the right side is part of the original orphanage before it was torn down–along with the original sidewalk that now leads to the Home’s  Welcome Center.

Aerial shot of my grandmother’s orphanage in the 1940’s/50’s

Looking down that pathway, I imagined my grandmother, 13, arriving with her three younger siblings: Edith, 8; Larkin, 11; and  Charlena, 3.   I tried to imagine the jumble of feelings she must have experienced taking those first tentative steps toward a new, uncertain life. Perhaps after months of taking care of their little family alone, she felt some relief. Maybe, as an aspiring college student, she knew that Waxahachie’s school system would offer much better educational opportunities than she’d had in her rural hometown. But mostly, she probably would’ve been grieving all she’d lost: her mama, friends and neighbors, the community that was all she had ever known…and Papa, who she still hoped might return.

The sidewalk that once led to the original orphanage.

That moment informed the fictional scene in my novel, when Leola and her sisters arrive at the Home: Helping them from the car, Leola eyed the long walkway—a stick-straight path that left no doubt where a person would end up. Each step down it felt like surrendering everything she’d known and loved. Felt like leaving Papa behind forever too.

My grandmother’s father never returned, and his seeming betrayal had an effect on the rest of her life. But just as I had envisioned that one pivotal moment at the orphanage, my research–and still unraveling clues about this resonant family mystery–gave me a new understanding of this loss, allowing me to delve deeper into the might have been’s and if only’s. The beauty of writing fiction is that it allows us to complete the half-circles and waylaid journeys of real experience. And who knows? In the process, one might just stumble upon something like the Truth.