Date of Award

Winter 1996

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Harvard Sitkoff


This dissertation examines the role of African-American newspapers as a forum for interracial discourse during World War I. The black press addressed itself to white America, arguing that African-Americans' participation in the war made them worthy of full citizenship, pointing out the similarity between the nation's aim of championing democracy in Europe and the goal of creating racial justice in America, and drawing parallels between atrocities against civilians in Europe and the lynching of African Americans in the Southern states. Some influential white Americans paid attention to these arguments and responded to them. In doing so, they sought to use the black press to reach African Americans and eliminate "unrest" among them. In fact the Wilson administration called a conference of black editors in Washington in 1918 precisely for this purpose.

Thus, African Americans used the black press to persuade white America to provide racial equality and whites used it to understand and try to manipulate the opinions and actions of the black population. The response of the black press to World War I can only be fully understood in the context of this dialogue across America's racial divide. As the Russian linguist M. M. Bakhtin postulated, ideology emerges from such dialogue because individuals assemble their arguments using words taken from other people's utterances and then speak those words with the aim of making their own case in a way that will persuade those other people. The black press developed its approach to World War I by appropriating words from mainstream discourse and using them with the aim of breaking through to the consciousness of white America.

This study is based on a close reading of four weekly newspapers (the Baltimore Afro-American, the Chicago Defender, the Cleveland Gazette, and the New York Age), one national monthly (the Crisis), and a sampling of ten other black publications, as well as records from three Federal agencies and the personal papers of black journalists and President Woodrow Wilson. It also deals with the careers of black journalists, including editors W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, and publishers Harry C. Smith, and Robert S. Abbott.