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Poignant Protest

Seven Decades Ago, the U.S. Government Offered Women Whose Sons and Husbands Died in World War I Trips Abroad to Visit Their Graves. A Tiny Band of Poor Black Women Refused Because the Hoover Administration Insisted That They Travel Separately.

September 15, 2002|Times staff writer Richard A. Serrano, who is based in Washington, D.C., last wrote for the magazine about U.S. domestic morale during World War II.

In the spring of 1930, a generation before the civil rights movement challenged the conscience of white America, a small group of mostly old, poor and uneducated black women staged a protest. They are not remembered today; their names do not grace civil rights memorials, they are not revered as pioneers of the movement. Yet their sacrifice was unmistakable.

Their sons and husbands had been killed in World War I and were buried in Europe, black soldiers alongside white, in new cemeteries honoring those who died before the Great War ended in 1918. A decade later, as memories of the war faded, the U.S. government offered to send the mothers and widows overseas, all expenses paid, to visit the graves.

With one caveat. The trips would be segregated, with white women given higher classes of transportation and lodging, an arrangement sadly not that unusual in the America of that era. Most black women went, many of them grudgingly overlooking the racial unfairness. But 23 refused. They wouldn't tolerate such conditions to visit the resting place of sons and husbands who had made the same sacrifice as whites. Those 17 mothers and six widows, most of whom rarely traveled far from their hometowns, passed up the trip of a lifetime.

White House internal memos show that President Herbert Hoover and his fellow Republicans were well aware of the risks involved in insisting upon segregating the travelers. The party of Lincoln had enjoyed blanket support from blacks for scores of years after the Civil War, but that support eroded under successive Republican administrations in the 1920s. Fearful of the fallout if the European trips erupted in controversy, the Hoover administration considered a number of ruses to shift the blame. Hoover himself favored announcing that the white women refused to travel with the blacks.

It didn't work. The issue did boil up, despite the party's efforts to contain it. Two years later, black voters, smarting from that and other grievances, would swing to the Democratic Party for the first time, helping to elect President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

The several hundred black women who did travel to the cemeteries went aboard cargo ships, stayed at the YWCA or second-class hotels, and were fed fried chicken and watermelon to make them "feel at home.'' While many harbored resentment that white women sailed on luxury liners and stayed at five-star hotels, they still felt compelled to visit the graves.

Among those who refused was Doshia Stevens of Youngstown, Ohio. Her husband, infantry Pvt. John Stevens, had died in a French hospital. She desperately wanted to see his grave, and initially agreed to go. But in July 1930, she wrote a one-sentence letter to Washington D.C. "Dear Sir, I am sorry to say but I am canceling my reservation because of discrimination.''

Martin Luther King Jr. was still an infant. The protest by Stevens and the others seems tame compared to the civil rights demonstrations he would help lead three decades later, when protesters were beaten, set upon by dogs and even murdered. Yet the action by these women did plant a seed, giving others the confidence to challenge racism.

"No, I do not care to go,'' the widow Gladys M. Mayo of New York wrote in her letter to Washington. "It is not what I thought it would be. I do not know what segregation is.''

When Quentin Roosevelt was shot down over German lines during the war, his grieving parents, former president and first lady Theodore and Edith Roosevelt, asked that their youngest son be buried at the spot where his plane crashed in occupied France. "We feel that where the tree falls, there let it lie,'' the former president said.

World War I was the first time that American soldiers were killed in great numbers overseas, and by the 1920s, the government allowed their survivors three choices: a burial at the site, such as the Roosevelts had done, having the bodies of their loved returned to the States, or having them collected in one of several new commemorative cemeteries being designed in Europe.

Some 78,000 members of the American Expeditionary Force lost their lives in the war, and a majority of their families had their bodies brought home. Only 128 left them where they died. The remainder, about 30,000, were gathered from the battlefields of the Marne and the Argonne and reburied in six cemeteries in France, one in England and one in Belgium.

In 1928, a new organization called the Gold Star Mothers began pressing for government-sponsored trips to the European cemeteries. As women whose hearts were broken by war, they emerged as a powerful political lobby. "I have received hundreds of letters from all over the country from these poor mothers, begging for that opportunity,'' one of their leaders, Mathilda Burling, implored the War Department. "It must be a pilgrimage Holy and Honorable, only fitting to 100% American ideals. There are no patriotic ideals in the whole world greater than American ideals.''

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