Over There—Not So Different from Over Here

The Great War marked a pivotal shift in the lives of African Americans. As American industry ramped up to meet wartime demands and droves of young people joined the U.S. military, new economic opportunities drew hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the South to industrial centers in the North. Between 1916 and 1920, during what became known as the Great Migration, 50,000 black southerners relocated to Chicago, where they accounted for 20 percent of the wartime meat-packing labor force (to take just one example).

In addition to bolstering the wartime economy, thousands joined up. When the United States committed troops to the Allied cause with its declaration of war on April 6, 1917, many African American Chicagoans enlisted with a sense of hopefulness. Could participation in a patriotic cause finally afford the full rights of citizenship denied so long to so many black Americans?

“Colored Man Is No Slacker” displays many of the paradoxes of the wartime opportunities offered to African American Chicagoans. The poster, published by Chicago chromolithographer E.G. Renesch in 1918, encouraged the enlistment of those black Americans arriving in Chicago during the Great Migration. Chicagoans may have encountered the artwork in their local library, YMCA, or grocery store. The poster evokes themes of personal sacrifice, collective action, and patriotism as this young African American recruit bids his sweetheart adieu. Yet, even as young black men joined up to demonstrate their commitment to the American war effort, they could only serve in segregated troops, which mirrored the institutionalized racism they experienced back home. And as many black troops returned to Chicago after the war, they found the economic opportunities that their stateside peers had enjoyed drying up: employers filled factory and manufacturing jobs with white men returning from the front. The wartime employment boom for African Americans had been temporary; hopes of socioeconomic mobility and access to the benefits of American citizenship were crushed.

This poster is just one artifact among many appearing in the fall 2014 exhibition Chicago, Europe, and the Great War, which (along with a complementary exhibition, American Women Rebuilding France, 1917-1924) will be on display in the Smith and East Galleries at the Newberry from September 17, 2014 through January 3, 2015. The exhibition draws on the Newberry’s collection to tell the story of Chicago’s many and varied connections to the conflict. The exhibition will feature 20 WWI-era posters in all, of which “Colored Man Is No Slacker” is the most recent addition to the Newberry’s collection.

This essay was written by Annie Cullen, Program Assistant for Exhibitions at the Newberry.