Returning African American veterans were met with a familiar “tenacious and violent white supremacy,” and their status as veterans made them special targets for white aggression. Though hailed as a hero during the war, Sergeant Henry Johnson was almost completely disabled from his wounds. Subject to the racially discriminatory administration of veterans’ benefits, he and many other black veterans were denied medical care and other assistance. After he publicly objected to the mistreatment of black veterans, Sergeant Johnson was discharged with no disability pay and left to poverty and alcoholism. Henry Johnson, patriot and war hero, died penniless and alone in 1929 at just 32 years old.
In Congress, the fear that returning soldiers posed a threat to racial hierarchy in the South was a matter of public record. On August 16, 1917, Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, speaking on the Senate floor, warned that the reintroduction of black servicemen to the South would “inevitably lead to disaster.” For Senator Vardaman and others like him, black soldiers’ patriotism was a threat, not a virtue. “Impress the negro with the fact that he is defending the flag, inflate his untutored soul with military airs, teach him that it is his duty to keep the emblem of the Nation flying triumphantly in the air,” and, the senator cautioned, “it is but a short step to the conclusion that his political rights must be respected.”
White Americans also feared that meeting black veterans’ demands for respect would lead to post-war economic demands for better working conditions and higher wages and would encourage other African Americans to resist Jim Crow segregation and racially oppressive social customs. Veterans’ experience with firearms and combat exacerbated fears of outright rebellion. In addition, the prevalent stereotype of black men as chronic rapists of white women — frequently used to justify lynchings — was amplified by accounts of wartime liaisons between black troops and white French women. Such acceptance by French women, it was claimed, would give black veterans the idea that they had sexual access to white Southern women. So as black soldiers returned home to enjoy peace, many Southern whites literally “prepared for war.” Racial violence targeting African American veterans soon followed.
On April 5, 1919, a 24-year-old black veteran named Daniel Mack was walking in Sylvester, Georgia, when he accidentally brushed up against a white man as they passed each other. The white man responded angrily and an altercation ensued, leading to Mr. Mack’s arrest. At his arraignment, Mr. Mack said, “I fought for you in France to make the world safe for democracy. I don’t think you’ve treated me right in putting me in jail and keeping me there, because I’ve got as much right as anyone to walk on the sidewalk.” The judge responded, “This is a white man’s country and you don’t want to forget it.” He sentenced Mr. Mack to 30 days on a chain gang. Mr. Mack was serving his sentence when, on April 14, at least four armed men seized him from his cell and carried him to the edge of town, where they beat him with sticks, clubs, and the butts of guns, stripped him of his clothes, and left him for dead. Despite multiple skull fractures, Mr. Mack made his way to the home of a black family who helped him to escape town.
Ely Green and Daniel Mack survived and managed to flee the South, but many other black veterans did not make it out alive. In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when a white woman told a black veteran to get off of the sidewalk, he replied that it was a free country and he would not move. For his audacity, a mob took him from town, bound him to a tree with tire chains, and fatally shot him as many as 50 times.
A month after World War I ended, Private Charles Lewis returned home to Tyler Station, Kentucky, where a mob of masked men lynched him on December 16, 1918. Private Lewis was wearing his uniform when he encountered Deputy Sheriff Al Thomas, who attempted to arrest him for robbery. Private Lewis denied guilt and pointed to his uniform, declaring that he had been honorably discharged and had never committed a crime. The two men argued and Private Lewis was charged with assault and resisting arrest. Private Lewis was awaiting transfer to the Fulton County Jail in Hickman, Kentucky, as news of his challenge to white authority spread and a mob of 75 to 100 people formed. At midnight, masked men stormed the jail, smashed the locks with a sledgehammer, pulled Private Lewis out of his cell, tied a rope around his neck, and hanged him from a tree. The next day, hundreds of white spectators viewed Private Lewis’s dead, hanging body, still in uniform. At least 10 more black veterans were lynched in 1919 alone.