While African American soldiers who served overseas fought for more toleration and acceptance, at home African American men and women were in the middle of a hostile racial climate that perpetuated segregation and discrimination. African American women were not able to integrate into the YWCA and American Red Cross, and many were shut out of jobs working in war plants. In 1918, the Gorham Manufacturing Company would not employ African American women at their Providence, RI factory. The rationale at the time was because “white girls refused to work with colored girls.” Ironically, overseas at the battlefront, white and black Rhode Island service men were spilling the same red blood in France.
African American women also played critical roles at home during the war years. They would provide support for African-American soldiers at training camps throughout the country and also served in “colored auxiliaries” of the Red Cross, YWCA and Nurses Corps.
Profile – Dr. Harriet A. Rice
Dr. Harriet Alleyne Rice was born to George and Lucinda Rice in 1866 in Newport and lived a considerable amount of her life at the family home at 75 Spring Street. She graduated as a top student at Newport’s Rogers High School and in 1882, she went on to become the first African American student to graduate from Wellesley College. Soon after she would earn a medical degree at the University of Michigan Medical School and further training from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
At the outbreak of World War I, Dr. Rice attempted to join the American Red Cross to take part in providing medical services for American troops, but was denied because of her race. Undaunted, she contacted the French government who were more than willing to have an experienced doctor available to treat wounded French troops. In July 1919, the French Embassy in Washington, DC presented Dr. Harriet Alleyne Rice of Newport, Rhode Island the “Medaille de Reconnaissance de la Francaise” or Medal of French Gratitude, for her outstanding services in French military hospitals treating wounded French soldiers during the war. After the war, Dr. Rice returned to America to continue her medical practice for another 40 years.
After the war, African American veterans and their families had a renewed sense of becoming fully enfranchised American citizens. Led by the NAACP and other organizations, there was an organized intent upon improving social, employment and civic conditions in the African American community. World War I represented a turning point in African American history, both nationally and in Rhode Island.
Newly empowered by living in Northern urban cities and making undeniable contributions both at home and overseas during the war, the stage was set for an energetic social and civil rights agenda. One of the most active organizations was the National Association’s of Colored Women’s Clubs. The Newport, Rhode Island chapter was the Women’s Newport League led by Mary Dickerson. Mary E. Jackson of Providence, Rhode Island was a leading member of the National Colored Women’s Clubs and during the war she was the Industrial Secretary for Colored Work.