History Club revealed our nation’s unknown past

Professor of history lectured on the racial violence in 1919 America.

Elizabeth Kaiser graphic

Elizabeth Kaiser graphic

As part of Black History Month, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s History Club invited Dr. David Krugler, professor of history, to lecture on the events of 1919. 

“We’re very lucky to have Dr. Krugler here to put on this presentation and bring awareness to the subject,” junior history major and History Club vice-president Kelsey Hauenstein said.

Krugler began by talking about segregated African-American units that served with distinction in the First World War. These men were highly decorated by the French for their part in winning the war, but, upon their return, found that the democracy they fought for was virtually non-existent for African-Americans. 

Krugler drew from the research used in his book “1919, The Year of Racial Violence”, opening with Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” Krugler explained how this poem captured the brutal reality facing African-Americans and their defiance in the face of oppression.

Krugler stated that over 20 lynchings occurred in the early months of 1919. White mobs forced African-Americans out of their jobs and homes, and this caused tensions to reach a breaking point with unprecedented amounts of violence against African-Americans who tried to gain the democracy they had helped preserve in Europe.

According to Krugler, during the escalated level of violence, African-Americans utilized three forms of resistance: armed self-defense against mobs, fighting for facts in the face of biased reports and fighting for justice afterward. At the center of this resistance were black veterans who formed the League for Democracy. These men patrolled the streets of cities acting as law enforcement.

Krugler also shared the story of Eugene Williams, a man who drowned after being hit in the head by a rock thrown by a white man. Williams’ friends found a black police officer and went to have the white man arrested, but they were stopped by a white officer. This sparked already high tensions from prior attacks on African-American homes and caused riots. Organized gangs began ransacking homes of African-Americans and running people down, prompting veterans to intervene.

“The part where the boy drowned and they didn’t do anything about it [really stuck out],” senior history major and History Club President Winifred Redfern said.

News about the riots, Krugler said, reported the African-American soldiers as terrorists attacking white citizens. However, the coroner’s report from the event praised these same soldiers for helping to keep people at ease in African-American communities and limiting the spread of the riots. 

In the aftermath, ten men – black and white – were arrested for concealed weapons, but the white men were released, their weapons returned. However, among them was a black man who passed as white, and his account caused the grand jury to question why only black men were being prosecuted. This action lead to the acquittal of many African-Americans.

Krugler concluded with the long-term effects of 1919. The first occurred in 1941 when A. Phillip Randolph met with President Roosevelt and discussed an executive order to ban discrimination in work and national service and a committee to enforce the order.

The second effect involved Robert F. Williams. Williams was drafted late in the Second World War and returned home to news of a local sharecropper being sentenced to death. Word reached Williams and other veterans that the Ku Klux Klan planned to attack the funeral and mutilate the body. In response, Williams organized an armed resistance around the funeral which thwarted the attack without confrontation.

Krugler tied the lecture to the more recent Black Lives Matter movement. He explained the premise of the statement and how 1919 shows why the slogan needs to specify “Black Lives” and why “All Lives Matter” misses the point.

Krugler stressed the importance of remembering that one century ago not everyone was permitted their constitutional rights. He also reminded the audience that these events can be compared to current issues we face today.

“I think there’s a lot of connections to the present from 1919, and this is a little-known part of our nation’s history. It’s said that we have to own our nation’s history – the good, the bad and the unpleasant,” Krugler said.

The lecture provided insight to a time often excluded from American history. Many people are unaware of the events which transpired only 100 years ago despite its link to the present.