Binghamton University

On October 4 and 5, I had the pleasure to visit Binghamton University for the first time. Professor Stephen Ortiz, author of Beyond the Bonus March and G.I. Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era, was kind enough to extend me an invitation to attend his graduate seminar on war and gender, as well as give a lecture as part of the History Department’s speaker series and leave my personal statements His grad seminar had read Torchbearers of Democracy and we had a great conversation about the book. They asked insightful questions and even challenged me on a few points. It almost made me miss being a graduate student…almost. My lecture for the History Department on my new book project was well attended and enthusiastically received. An all-around wonderful visit that further confirmed the growing historical interest in African Americans and World War I.

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Interview on New Books Network

Check out the interview I did with the New Books Network website.  I always find it strange listening to myself, but I think the interview turned out very well.  We covered a lot of ground.

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Torchbearers of Democracy wins OAH 2011 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award

Torchbearers of Democracy has been selected by the Organization of American Historians (OAH) to receive the 2011 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award, which is given annually for the best book on any aspect of the struggle for civil rights in the United States, from the nation’s founding to the present.

From the award committee:

Williams’s book, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (University of North Carolina Press) draws overdue attention to a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights through an epic history of black veterans and the double consciousness that framed their call to duty, according to the Liberty Legacy Foundation Award Committee. A multifaceted study of war and memory, it scrutinizes the hope and disillusionment provoked by black efforts to close ranks with American nationalism during the Great War and its aftermath. While racism persisted within both military and civilian life, the black soldier became a powerful symbol of racial progress and white panic, serving as a catalyst for social and cultural change. Williams deftly layers policy history and discourse analysis over gut-wrenching stories of terror and valor from the frontlines in both wartime France and Jim Crow America. Answering calls to extend the temporal, geographical, and analytical scope of civil rights history, he offers a transnational and intersectional study of how constructions of manhood, violence, and empire shaped notions of race and citizenship at the dawn of the American century. Beyond recovering the humanity of its multiplicitous subjects, Torchbearers of Democracy sets a new standard for the integration of African American, political, and military history.

OAH President David A. Hollinger and President-Elect Alice Kessler-Harris presented the award on Saturday, March 19 at the 104th annual meeting of the OAH in Houston, Texas.

Shout out to my former Princeton graduate school colleague Cheryl Hicks for receiving a Darlene Clark Hine Award honorable mention for her wonderful book Talk to You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935 (University of North Carolina Press).

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WAMC Academic Minute

WAMC Northeast Public Radio has a great little segment called Academic Minute, which allows professors from throughout the country to discuss aspects of their work within the tidy timeframe of one minute. I am featured on the December 28, 2010 program. It was tough trying to capture the central meaning of Torchbearers of Democracy in one minute, but I gave it my best shot. If anything, this serves as a great cure for long-winded professors: keep it short and sweet!

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ASALH 2010

Friday, 8:30 AM conference panels are never a good idea. It’s one of those slots that, after organizing a session, you check the schedule, and just wince, shake your head, and hope for the best. Nevertheless, I was extremely excited about the roundtable panel I put together for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) annual meeting, held in Raleigh, NC from September 29 to October 3. The session consisted of myself, Adriane Lentz-Smith (History Department, Duke University), Pellom McDaniels III (History Department, University of Missouri-Kansas City) and David Davis (English Department, Mercer University). Adriane, who I jokingly refer to as my twin because our interests are so alike, is the author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I, a great book. I first met Pellom during a Memorial Day 2009 visit to Kansas City and the National World War I Museum, where we both discussed the legacy of African Americans in the war. ASALH was my first opportunity to meet David Davis, whose work on representations of the war in African American literature I have greatly admired.

With such a stellar group, I was fully prepared for an overflow audience. I had my comments ready to go, along with glowing introductions for my co-panelists. But, alas, by 8:40 it became clear that it was going to be just us.

Not content to let a great opportunity go to waste, we sat down and started chatting amongst ourselves. We began our conversation by talking about the contested memory of World War I for African Americans and the various ways in which it has been both remembered and historicized. David made the point that the United States has done a poor job of remembering World War I in general, and that the seemingly forgotten presence of African Americans is reflective of a broader national historical amnesia.

After a few minutes we were joined by John W. Franklin of the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture (who I later found out is the late great John Hope Franklin’s son!). With the World War I centennial just around the corner, he was adamant that we organize a symposium on black participation in the war. Of course we all said yes! Mr. Franklin also thrilled us with some great stories about “uncle” Rayford Logan, the famed African American historian who served in World War I, and how he studied in France with Cesaire. Thinking about a possible symposium at the Smithsonian gave Pellom an opportunity to discuss the fabulous website he created, “They Came to Fight” (, on African American participation in World War I and the school curriculum he has developed around it. We all agreed that the history of African Americans and the war cannot be confined just to the academy, but must be a public history as well.

Doing this necessitates demonstrating the breadth and complexity of African Americans’ experiences during the World War I era. While Adriane, David, Pellom and I have examined similar sources, we each use them in different ways. Adriane emphasized how we can gain a new perspective on issues of womanhood, political consciousness and internationalism by looking at the war through the experiences of a black woman like Kathryn Johnson, who served as an overseas YMCA secretary in France during the war. David mentioned the historical and literary significance of the black Services of Supply troops, and how they do not fit into the dominant narrative of black participation in the war. Pellom observed how integral African American soldiers were to the development of both jazz and Negro League baseball. To this point, he also talked about his efforts to further incorporate the black war experience into the National World War I Museum, and connect it to the National Jazz Museum and Negro League Hall of Fame, all located in Kansas City. This seemed perfectly logical to all of us. But clearly a disconnect continues to exist between the war and other key developments in African American history in the larger public consciousness. I suggested that one of the main reasons why World War I remains so ambiguous for African Americans is because the memories of the war itself are so conflicting. While you have tremendous examples of valor and courage, like Henry Johnson and the 369th Harlem “Hellfighters,” you also have tremendous disappointment, such as the demeaning treatment of black soldiers and the violence of the “Red Summer” of 1919. David made the astute observation that we can indeed appreciate how visceral the memories of postwar racial violence were by looking at the plays, poems, and novels produced by African American writers during the interwar period. Reconciling these conflicting meanings of the war—patriotic sacrifice and valor vs. dogged racial oppression and disillusionment with American democracy—was and continues to be an extremely difficult task. As both Adriane and I noted, self-proclaimed “historians” of the black war experience, like Emmett J. Scott, Kelly Miller, and Allison Sweeny produced books that in the end failed to leave a lasting impact. W. E. B. Du Bois likewise tried to write the history of World War I and peoples of African descent, but never succeeded despite a seventeen year attempt to do so.

This caused us to ponder, what makes us different? How do we account for the current burst of scholarly interest in African Americans and World War I? We did not come to a firm conclusion. But perhaps historians and literary scholars are only now beginning to ask the right questions and search in the right places for the answers. By adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, connecting the global to the local, and critically interrogating the meanings of nation, citizenship, freedom and democracy, maybe we have finally begun to marshal the necessary intellectual tools for fully appreciating the breadth and complexity of African Americans’ experiences in World War I. If our conversation at ASALH is any indication, we certainly have much to look forward to.

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The Page 99 Test

The English novelist (and World War I veteran!) Ford Madox Ford argued that everything you need to know about a book is on page 99. I took the Page 99 Test and here are my thoughts. Not perfect, but still an interesting exercise.

So, for those of you who have gotten through the book, what do you think? Does page 99 work?

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Torchbearers of Democracy now available!

My first book, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era, is now officially out and available for purchase. Many thanks to everyone who made this book possible. I hope to use this website and blog to create a community of people not just interested in the book, but the fascinating history of African Americans during World War I. This will serve as an opportunity for me to share my thoughts with you, as well as for you to offer questions, comments and dialogue.

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