For 11 years, Bessie Strawther longed for a chance to visit her son’s grave. Pvt. Henry Strawther, a black American soldier in a segregated infantry unit, had died fighting the German army on Oct. 6, 1918, nearly five weeks before World War I ended in armistice. Veterans in his home town of Urbana, Ohio, had named an American Legion post after him, but his body remained interred somewhere in France — an ocean away from his mother.
Then came an extraordinary proposal from the U.S. government. The War Department in 1929 created a program to send bereaved mothers and widows like Strawther on two-week, all-expense-paid trips to Europe to visit the final resting places of their sons and husbands. The journeys became known as the Gold Star mother and widow pilgrimages, named after the newly minted organization for women who had lost family members in the war.
In summer 1930, Strawther took a train from Urbana to New York City, where the War Department had arranged for her to board a commercial steamer bound for France.
But shortly after she arrived in the city, she started having second thoughts. Government officials were requiring Strawther and the other black women to travel on a different ship and stay in different quarters from white women making the same journey.
The idea of being segregated sickened Strawther. Her son had given his life, but her government still treated her as a second-class citizen. Days before the ship set sail, she backed out. “I am not going to France,” she wrote to a prominent NAACP member at the time. She had accepted the invitation “not knowing what I do now,” she wrote. “I do not want to be a disgrace to my son and the race.”
Strawther was one of a few hundred black women who signed up to make the government-funded pilgrimage to Europe in the early 1930s, only to be told by the War Department that they couldn’t travel or share hotels with their white counterparts.
Her story was highlighted in a Journal of American History article from September 2015 that detailed the little-known story of the federal government’s well-intended but discriminatory program that brought Gold Star mothers and widows to the battlefields and cemeteries of the First World War.
The article received renewed attention this week after President Trump was accused of insulting a black Gold Star widow whose husband, U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson, was recently killed in an ambush in Niger. On Monday, as Trump clashed openly with the widow over allegations that he was insensitive during his condolence call to her, the Journal of American History announced it was posting the article free online for the next month. “Insulting African American gold star widows has a history,” the journal wrote in a tweet.
The article was written by Rebecca Jo Plant, an associate professor of history at the University of California at San Diego, and Frances M. Clarke, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sydney. Their research, along with a 1999 essay in the National Archives’ Prologue magazine, represents some of the only publicly available scholarship on the segregation of black women who took part in the pilgrimage program.
SOURCE: Derek Hawkins
The Washington Post