How black American mothers of slain WWI heroes suffered segregation during pilgrimage to Europe

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson September 18, 2018

In 1928, many African American middle-aged women received good news from the U.S. government that they would finally be making the pilgrimage to Europe to see the resting places of their loved ones that they lost to World War I.

With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American War Mothers (AWR), a legislation was signed by the 30th President of America, Calvin Coolidge, in March 1928 for the African American women to travel on an all-expense paid pilgrimage to Europe as guests of the U.S. government on a fund of five million dollars.

For many of the Gold Star Mothers, the news came as a relief as they would finally be able to find closure and put to rest the daunting thoughts that they had been harbouring for close to 12 years after losing their family members to the war. But the details of their trip soon left them feeling insulted and all the more segregated.

African American Gold Star Mothers, 1930

The American Gold Star Mothers had gained recognition when it was officially formed on June 4, 1928, by 25 mothers in Washington DC who had come together to create the group. But the group had existed long before then.

It was started by Grace Darling Seibold in 1918 who spent her time working in hospitals catering for wounded soldiers as a way of dealing with the pain from the loss of her 24-year-old son who had died in Europe. Soon, other women joined her to offer service, and the ruling president, Woodrow Wilson recognised the group.

In 1930, the first set of African American women to leave received detailed information on how they were to prepare for the pilgrimage. To their relief, the trip was an all expense paid one, and they accepted it as a way of the U.S. government giving back to them after taking their precious loved one. They envisaged a self-deserving trip to Europe sleeping in comfortable hotel rooms and sailing on well catered for ships as the ones the white mothers travelled on for the same reasons.

The women were cautioned about the cold and were told to pack enough clothes as there was a lack of laundry during the two-week trip.

Cargo ship

The heartbreak began when the African American Gold Star Mothers were separated from the whites. They travelled on the segregated trains the women were made to take to New York where they would sleep in hotels and leave on the ships for Europe.

Upon arrival in New York, the Gold Star Mothers were taken to sleep in Harlem’s YWCA instead of the expensive hotels the white women stayed in. It was on the morning of the trip that the women would be informed that they were to join freight, cattle or cargo ships to Europe.

Feeling insulted and very ill-treated, a few Gold Star Mothers outrightly refused to set sail on the funded segregated trip.

The ill-treatment caused a stir in the African American community and many civil rights activist groups. Many of the Gold Star Mothers signed a petition that was sent to the NAACP. Newspapers in support of the mothers published articles around the issue and the NAACP together with other activist groups called on the government to see to it that such discrimination and segregation be sorted out. But the government did not heed their complaints and continued to organize the trips for the women.

The last ship to Europe for the African American Gold Star Mothers was designated to leave in 1934 and despite petitions, call to actions and several letters to the government, the conditions did not change.

For many Gold Star Mothers who had initially refused to take the trip, they were forced to choose love over pride and set sail on the cargo and cattle ships to see the final resting place of their loved ones.

The disrespectful treatment of the Gold Star Mothers left a mark in the African American community sending a message to all about the lack of respect and acknowledgement of the black race despite, age, sex and status. At the end of the Jim Crow era, the Gold Star Mothers began to be of mixed races.

To date, the Gold Star Mothers’ pilgrimage to Europe and the saga surrounding it remains a much spoken about and studied case on the matter of segregation and racisms towards the black race.


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