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Dr. William H. Davis


 

Dr. William H Davis

Left to Right: Dr. William H. Davis  Miss Ernestine English. Mr. R. W. Thompson, Mr. Charles Webb, Mr. J. B. Smith, Mrs. Madeline P. Childs, and Seated Dr. Emmett Scott, Dr William H Davis, served in the War Department as assistant to Dr Emett Scott Special Asistant to the Secretary of War.

In October 1917, U.S. Secretary Baker appointed Emmett J. Scott, to the poistion of  assistant to the Secretary of War. Scott's appointment was, at the time, the highest government commission ever given an African American. Scott said Secretary Baker named him to the post because he wanted to have in the War Depart­ment a colored man in touch with Northern and Southern white people and colored people, who could advise whenever delicate questions arose affecting the interests of colored people in the United States." Scott de­scribed his mission as "... helping bring the race into sympa­thetic understanding and cheerful cooperation with the plans and purpose of the government as they relate to the great strug­gle in which the world is now involved." He said he was a "confi­dential advisor in matters affecting the interest of the 10,000,­000 negroes of the United States.. and the part they are to play in connection with the present war."

 

Scott appointed William H. Davis as his own special assistant and manager of his five-person War Department staff. He was impressed with William H. Davis' work as official stenog­rapher at annual conventions of Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League and con­vinced him to leave his Treasury Department to make a meaningful contribu­tion toward black progress.

 

At the War Department, Davis handled the complaints of black soldiers, making sure they and their families received the government benefits to which they were entitled and assuring that the newly institut­ed Selec­tive Service regula­tions were applied equally to all people. He soon discovered that though eligible black Ameri­cans were 10.7 percent of the population they consti­tuted 13 percent of those called to military service, even though the Selective Service procedure was supposedly color blind.

 

Davis'  investigation of this irregularity revealed that black men were excluded from sitting on southern draft boards, and white men, some of whom may have wanted to shield their own sons from the dangers of military service, found it easy to draft black men in disproportionate numbers. Davis' findings were sent to Secretary Baker and then to the Wilson White House, but nothing changed.

 

In a letter of complaint to William H. Davis  at the War Depart­ment that was later pub­lished in the "Pittsburgh Courier" Houston wrote: "The hate and scorn heaped upon us as Negro officers by our Americans, at Camp Mencou and Vannes, in France convinced me there was no sense dying in a world ruled by them...They boarded us off from our fellow white officers. They made us eat on benches in order to maintain segregation, and they destroyed our prestige in front of French officers." Houston told Davis that he was so disheartened by his treatment as a military officer that he did not apply for several medals for which he was eligible.

 

As reports of Army racism became more frequent DuBois went to France to see for himself the conditions of black fight­ing men and to gather material for his "History of the Black Man in the Great War." During three months in Europe he saw black sol­diers humiliated and badly treated.  His initial enthusi­asm for black participation in the war diminished. In the "Crisis"  DuBois reported "no person in an official position dare tell the truth" about the treatment of black soldiers.

 

Despite Davis' frustration over his War Department office's inability to make any significant changes in the way 

black servicemen were treated, or to gain any assurance that life for black Americans would improve after the war, his tenure there was not without personal reward.

 

Black women had never served in the United States Navy and in 1917 Davis convinced Secretary Baker to establish the first Navy office staffed by black women. The 16 black Yeomane­ttes, who were enlisted personnel and wore official U.S. Navy uniforms, worked in the Muster Roll division at Washin­gton's Navy Yard under the command of John T. Risher, a member of the city's black elite. They were respon­sible for documenting the movement of war ships and the Navy men who sailed them and assuring that their benefits and pay checks were paid on time.

 

The 16 members of the black Yeomanettes included several members of Washington's elite black families, Catalina Boyd, Josie Washington and Ruth Osbourne, who would become the grand­mother of President William Jefferson Clinton's Secretary of Commerce, Ronald Harmon Brown. William Davis' was especially proud of his nineteen year old daugh­ter, Yeomane­tte Sara Louise Davis.

 

 At the end of the war, when black servicemen returned they found the nation's racial climate had not improved. It had, in fact, become worse as the Red Summer of 1919 brought riots and racial violence to many American cities, including Washingto­n, D.C. The competi­tion for jobs and adequate housing in a nation gearing down from an economy driven by war production was fierce. Racial prejudice banned returning black servicemen from lucrative employ­ment and membership in labor unions even as apprentices