Segregation for the dummies
October 19, 2005 6:49 AM   Subscribe

Secret information concerning the Black American Troops. We must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers. We may be courteous and amiable with these last, but we cannot deal with them on the same plane as with the white American officers without deeply wounding the latter. In August 1918, the French liaison officer at the American Expeditionary Force Headquarters gave his fellow officers a primer in US-style racial segregation, urging the military and civil authorities to implement similar procedures on French soil, as the local populations were felt by US authorities to be much too friendly towards American Black troops (PDF, page 13) (see also the first chapter of Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light). This memorandum, however, was never distributed and other similar leaflets were eventually destroyed by the French government. One soldier of the 93rd Division wrote his mother: These French people don't bother with no color line business. They treat us so good that the only time I ever know I'm colored is when I look in the glass.
posted by elgilito (18 comments total)
posted by caddis at 7:00 AM on October 19, 2005

For instance, the black American troops in France have, by themselves, given rise to as many complaints for attempted rape as all the rest of the army.
That one caught my eye. Left me a little unsettled. Anyone know the story behind that claim?
posted by verb at 7:21 AM on October 19, 2005

That one caught my eye. Left me a little unsettled.

Yeah, me too. Makes me wonder if they weren't as free of prejudice as it seems.
posted by unreason at 7:24 AM on October 19, 2005

Important historical documents, at your fingers instantly, shedding perspective on interesting questions. This is why I love the internets. Thanks!
posted by Miko at 7:27 AM on October 19, 2005

Also: Better cheese.
posted by Artw at 7:28 AM on October 19, 2005

Verb, I wonder if this quote from Elgilito's second link points towards the answer:

"The story of the roughness of the colored men was being told to the [French] civilians in order that all possible association between them might be avoided. They had been systematically informed that their dark-skinned allies were not only unworthy of any courtesies from their homes, but that they were so brutal and vicious as to be absolutely dangerous. They were even told that they belonged to a semi-human species who only a few years ago had been caught in the American forests, and only 152 been tamed enough to work under the white Americans’ direction. Literature was gotten out through the French Military Mission and sent to French villages explaining how Americans desired the colored officers and troops to be treated; that they desired them to receive no more attention than was required in the performance of the military duties; that to show them social courtesies not only would be dangerous, but that it would be an insult to the American people. The literature was finally collected and ordered destroyed by the French ministry."

Part of the rationale for Jim Crow at home was the myth of the hypersexual black male, unable to control his impulses, especially around white women. It seems that the Americans were giving the French a crash course in American style racism, and the complaints of rape might reflect this learned racism more than reality.

(Also: Superb post!)
posted by LarryC at 7:31 AM on October 19, 2005

Desturbing. I'm glad the french government had the forsight to destroy these documents.
posted by delmoi at 7:38 AM on October 19, 2005

This American Life did a segment on this, including the story of a shipwrecked Black american soldier who awoke from unconsciousness to find himself in a strange bed, in nothing but his underwear, and extremely freaked out by the bevy of French grandmas making him tea and changing his bandages.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:42 AM on October 19, 2005

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, we still have the color line in America (segregated schools, etc.), and the cities of France have the French/Muslim line.

Line. A strangely emotion-free word for the deep-seated bigotry that only disappears occasionally in the most serendipitous of circumstances.
posted by kozad at 7:54 AM on October 19, 2005

As an aside, it should be noted that the French army, throughout WWI, had been struggling to find willing cannon fodder in the French African colonies and had met some violent resistance there. In 1917, PM Clemenceau sent Blaise Diagne, a prominent Senegalese deputy in the French Parliament, to deal with the situation, and Diagne recruited 80000 African troops (he had already obtained equal rights for African troops in 1915). Diagne, according to one of the sources, was one of the people - another being the US intellectual WE DuBois - who made the memo a public scandal, accusing the French authorities of colonial prejudice. While the origin of the memo is unclear (several web sources claim that it was penned by General Pershing himself), it is possible that it was judged at some point to be detrimental to the French war effort, as it could turn the much needed colonial troops against France (just connecting the dots here).
posted by elgilito at 7:59 AM on October 19, 2005

LarryC, I'd missed that bit in the second link, thanks for pointing it out. I'd had the impression that they were talking about crime reports or police records or something, but a closer reading reveals they could easily have just been repeating the 'common knowledge' of the American troops.
posted by verb at 8:36 AM on October 19, 2005

very interesting, thanks
posted by matteo at 8:40 AM on October 19, 2005

"For instance, the black American troops in France have, by themselves, given rise to as many complaints for attempted rape as all the rest of the army."

Isn't that because black American soldiers were tried by the US military? I know that in the UK during WWII the number of black soldiers tried and executed for crimes was hugely disproportionate to the number of white solders.

"Under a unique agreement between the American forces and the British government, US troops were tried by the Americans, under US law on British soil. This happened even when the crimes were permitted against British citizens. Rape was not a capital offence in Britain at the time, but it became one for black soldiers accused of raping the local British girls. In many cases the short trials were based on flimsy evidence and then followed by swift executions."

[sorry, not the best link but I'm rushing to leave the office]
posted by ceri richard at 10:28 AM on October 19, 2005

Fascinating material, and a great post. From the "never distributed" link:

For the French however, the 'savage' of yesterday became a loyal African soldier in their struggle against the barbarian Huns.

And went right back to being a 'savage' as soon as the war was over, just as the British threw Indian soldiers in as cannon fodder and then expected them to go back to being contemptible wogs afterwards and were completely taken aback by the Quit India movement.
posted by languagehat at 10:34 AM on October 19, 2005

Neat post. Some members of the Harlem Renaissance always spoke lovingly of their time in Europe, especially France, as Doughboys. It's interesting to see it wasn't all wine and roses for them.
posted by bardic at 3:55 PM on October 19, 2005

> Very few people know about the tragedy of Emmett Till's father, Louis Till. Louis Till's story, more complicated, reveals how segregation worked nationally, in institutions like the U.S. Army. Together, the fate of father and son encapsulate a legacy of American racism that stretches across this country.

Emmett was nearing his 4th birthday when Louis Till was hanged by the U.S. Army in Italy for rape and murder. Louis Till spent the last month of his life in a disciplinary center with hundreds of African-American soldiers and very few white detainees. One of the only white prisoners was the poet Ezra Pound, confined to a 6-by-6-foot cage as he awaited a treason trial for his fascist radio broadcasts. Pound referred to Till in the epic poem he was writing as "St. Louis Till."

Only a man as disturbed as Pound could have made Till into a literary saint. Before the war, Till nearly strangled his wife, who took out a court order to keep him away. A judge gave Till a choice between jail and the Army: He chose the Army. He was a private in a port battalion, a member of the racially segregated Army that restricted the majority of its black soldiers to service units where they worked as menial laborers, moving the supplies that guaranteed military victory in Europe.

Segregation makes no distinction but racial ones: Till entered the Army as a known criminal, according to a cynical policy that forced law-abiding black citizens into the same units with men as ill-equipped for military service as Till was. Official Army policy was "separate but equal" but there was nothing equal for blacks in the brutal conditions of their training, in not being allowed into combat, in segregated barracks--even for officers--and in the undignified manner in which they were forced to live as they endangered their lives to liberate Europe from Nazism. It was obvious to black GIs that even German prisoners of war received better treatment than they did. This was a case of Jim Crow law writ nationwide, and, in the course of World War II, it meant that American-style apartheid was exported to Europe, North Africa and the Pacific, for all the world to see.

I found Louis Till's grave in France, in a small plot of land outside the official grounds of the Oise-Aisne World War I American cemetery. In what is known as "Plot E" there are 96 markers, marble squares with numbers and no names. Eighty of these graves belong to African-American soldiers, all of them tried and convicted in U.S. Army courts-martial of crimes of rape and murder. That means that 83 percent of the men executed in Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean Theaters of Operation were African-Americans, in an Army that was only 8.5 percent black. The procedures in their trials were faulty enough to have led to a total reform of military justice after WWII, to a uniform code and the establishment of a court of military appeals.

Perhaps the Army felt it was protecting the honor of the other war dead by consolidating its convicted criminals in Plot E. Army officials may have believed they were sparing the families of those criminals by informing them only that their loved ones had died "due to willful misconduct." Mamie Till asked a lawyer friend to find out more, and after many requests, he was finally given permission to consult Louis Till's court-martial transcript. The Army sent Mamie Till her husband's engraved silver signet ring, which she gave to her son. Most families never knew how or why their loved ones died and don't know where they are to this day.

Plot E, closed to the public, nonetheless exists. While privacy may have been protected at Plot E, history has been lost. As a nation, we live with the consequences of repressing our bad memories. An Army where black soldiers were classified by race, badly trained, poorly led and treated as less than human encouraged violence among those soldiers. We recently remembered the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till's murder and unjust trial. We also need to remember Louis Till's trial, not because he was innocent, but because we as a nation were guilty.
-- Alice Kaplan, professor of literature and history at Duke University and is the author of "The Interpreter"

> Louis Guilloux, one of France`s leading novelists in the 1930s, prided himself on his knowledge of Russian literature, especially that of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The authors` ironic sense of what happens when the law is badly served came to the fore when ... Guilloux was hired as an interpreter for and intermediary between the newly liberated people of Brittany and the Third Army under George S. Patton, who voiced concern for the 'increasing number of crimes against French civilians which are being committed within the Army, particularly by service troops.' By service troops, Patton meant black GIs attached to quartermaster, ordnance and transportation companies behind the lines, and he warned that some charges, including rape, would carry the death penalty.

Only hours after Patton's warning was issued, a black GI named James Hendricks went off after a drinking bout and allegedly killed a French civilian and sexually assaulted the dead man's wife; after a trial in which Guilloux served as interpreter, Hendricks was sentenced to die and was publicly hanged, though his family in North Carolina were told only that he died as a result of misconduct. Guilloux discerned a pattern: 'The guilty were always black,' he noted, 'so much so that even the stupidest of men would have ended up asking himself how it was possible that there be so much crime on one side, and so much virtue on the other.' As Kaplan demonstrates, that virtue was illusory: In one case that she closely documents, a white American officer murdered an Austrian attached to Free French forces but was readily acquitted, while black soldiers—including civil-rights martyr Emmett Till`s father—were executed for capital crimes, making up 55 of the 70 Americans thus killed in Europe from 1943 to 1946.

"Under a unique agreement between the American forces and the British government, US troops were tried by the Americans, under US law on British soil.

Unique at the time? Perhaps, but today the US routinely seeks Status of Forces Agreemnts with similar provisions.
posted by dhartung at 4:46 PM on October 19, 2005

You definitely don't want the blacks and the French fraternizing. When you put two groups of people known for having great music and large penises together, you're just asking for trouble.
posted by deusdiabolus at 3:05 AM on October 20, 2005

The French have great music?
posted by caddis at 4:29 AM on October 20, 2005

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