African Americans and American Empire: Voices from the Archives

This guest post comes from Clif Stratton, author of Education for Empire

While researching Education for Empire, it became abundantly clear to me that in the early twentieth century, many African Americans who vigorously resisted racial injustice at home became keenly aware of the implications of that injustice for American imperial power abroad. As many white politicians, intellectuals, and nationalists lauded the righteousness of US expansion for the benefits of free trade, democracy, and civilization that American rule of law would inevitably bestow upon the rest of the world, black leaders demanded that a bit of national soul searching accompany meaningful public policy to address racial inequality. Only then, they argued, would the United States be able to wield international power and influence free of the hypocrisy and scourge of racism and injustice. Many were not opposed to the extension of American power per se, but instead desired that imperial actions align with democratic principles in a real rather than rhetorical manner. Here are a few of those voices:

  • On the occasion of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, Timothy Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, remarked on the absence of solidarity among colonized non-whites in the United States and its territories and informal colonial possessions. Fortune was deeply troubled by what he saw as an intense disdain on the part of Native Americans, Filipinos, Hawaiians, and “Haytians” toward African Americans. Writing in The Voice of the Negro, Fortune located the roots of their contempt in the psychological practices of US colonialism: “And why this feeling on the part of the dark people toward other dark people? Simply that the American white man sets the standard of treatment of black people, decreeing that they are political, social, and industrial pariahs, not only in this country, but all over the globe where they touch elbows, and the other dark races accept the standard of the American white man, because they want to get out of the tabooed class and to stand well with those who despise them, while chuckling them under the chin with the left hand and having the right stuck deep in their commercial trousers.”
  • In 1908, Lugenia Burns Hope, wife of Morehouse College President John Hope, founded the Neighborhood Union in Atlanta. The organization worked to improve the lives of black Atlantans vis-à-vis the municipal services supposedly afforded all citizens of the city: schools, housing, sanitation, and criminal justice. In 1918, as the US deepened its fight against the Central Powers, the Neighborhood Union delivered a written address to President Woodrow Wilson and the US Congress. The Neighborhood Union wrapped the morality of the American cause in the cloak of lynching: “We accordingly regard lynching as worse than Prussianism which we are at war to destroy. Lynching is not a cure for crime, either imaginary or real…That these murderers frequently ply their trade in broad daylight and in plain view of the entire citizenry even, does not facilitate their punishment or detection….[T]he treatment accorded us is humiliating, dehumanizing, and reprehensible in the extreme….What thinks you will be the effect on the morale of black men in the trenches when they reflect that they are fighting on foreign fields on behalf of their nation for those very rights and privileges which they themselves are denied at home?….We appeal to you in the name of our American citizenship!”
  • Dr. George Edmund Haynes, a social scientist at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee also exposed the rub between national ideals as ideological weapons of war abroad and the racial limits of democracy at home. Speaking in 1918, Haynes implored Fisk students to remain steadfast in their quest to share in the benefits of the American empire of liberty: “My friends, I believe this afternoon that one of our greatest contributions to race adjustment is to hold fast to this faith in the future of democracy in the South and in America. Our whole national existence is a failure and all our great professions of liberty and democracy have been vain if this is not true….We must go either toward full citizenship or backward toward slavery. Race adjustment must be made on that basis, or we are of all men most miserable! We are sending our boys to fight and die in France and Flanders to establish these principles ‘over there.’ Are we not lost if they do not apply over here?”


Clif Stratton is Clinical Assistant Professor of History and Assistant Director of the Roots of Contemporary Issues program at Washington State University. He is the 2014 recipient of the American Historical Association’s Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award.