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Black bodies, white borders: mapping the color line inside and outside the United States, 1902-1916.

Scholars continue to debate the imperialistic nature of the United States. Jane Burbank and Frederic Cooper suggest that while nations are distinct from empires, they usually share coinciding places. Commemorating the war dead has long served a useful political purpose of mitigating the national disgrace of war that sometimes went with American imperial expansion. But the public commemorations of the war dead from the Philippines and the U.S. invasions of Mexico in 1914 and again in 1916 help expose these overlapping borders of nation and empire, especially because dead bodies created from these aggressive acts could help triangulate the tricky and sometimes uneasy white borders where republicanism, Jim Crow, and imperialism lay side-by-side. (1)

Examining commemorations of the dead when U.S. officials explicitly acted imperialistically can provide a clear case of where national and imperialistic places converged and competed with one another. On Memorial Day in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt addressed a crowd--many of whom were Civil War veterans from the North and the South--at Arlington National Cemetery. American newspapers had been reporting on the controversy over the court-martial trial of Major Littleton Waller stemming from the crimes committed in the Philippines that exposed American brutality in the wake of the Balingiga Massacre. Roosevelt used this commemoration as an opportunity to hit back at his critics. After honoring Civil War veterans in the audience, the President contrasted his praise to the "small but peculiarly trying and difficult war which is involved not only the honor of the flag, but the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism." The President admitted that there were some American soldiers in the Philippines who had "so far forgotten themselves as to counsel and commit, in retaliation, acts of cruelty." These were just a few individuals, insisted the President, who posed no threat to the larger reputation of the U.S. military mission in the Philippines. He reminded his audience "that for every guilty act committed by one of our troops a hundred acts of far greater atrocity have been committed by the hostile natives." Roosevelt promised that any American soldier who had committed excesses would be found out and disciplined. (2)

Justifying the war allowed the President to praise the actions of the majority of soldiers doing their duty while directing his ire at war critics in a peculiar way. Roosevelt pivoted from addressing military war crimes abroad to critiquing domestic civilian racial violence. Critics, he argued, should not be so quick to condemn the soldiers in the Philippines, particularly because, "from time to time, there occur in our country, to the deep and lasting shame of our people, lynchings... a cruelty infinitely worse than any that has been committed by our troops in the Philippines." This seemingly bizarre connection illustrates how Roosevelt was operating the levers of imperialism through overlapping imperial and national places. He continued, "The men who fail to condemn these lynchings, and yet clamor about what has been done in the Philippines, are indeed guilty of neglecting the beam in their own eye while taunting their brother about the mote in his." The allusion to Jesus of Nazareth's Sermon on the Mount helped juxtapose American racial violence committed by U.S. soldiers abroad and by American citizens at home worlds away from each other. He accused detractors who "afford[ed] far less justification for a general condemnation of our army than these lynchings afford for the condemnation of the communities in which they have taken place." (3)

Roosevelt rotated toward a justification of his policy in the Philippines again by juxtaposing far off lands with nearby communities. According to the President, "in every community there are people who commit acts of well-nigh inconceivable horror and baseness." Concentrating only on the bad, he argued, without considering the "countless deeds of wisdom and justice and philanthropy," would encourage most people "to condemn the community." He insisted likewise that the United States was obeying rules of engagement and doing much more good in the Philippines. He compared detractors of the Philippine war to the old Confederacy noting that the Confederate Congress called General Grant a "butcher" and accused Lincoln of engaging in "'contemptuous disregard for the usages of civilized war'" just as some were now accusing Roosevelt. Of these slanderers, the President went on, "you have their heirs to-day in those who traduce our armies in the Philippines, who fix their eyes on individual deeds of wrong so keenly that at last they become blind to the great work of peace and freedom that has already been accomplished." (3) Using old Confederates to discredit anti-imperialists helped Roosevelt answer his critics and it also connected racial politics of nation and empire. (4)

This kind of negotiation between imperial and national places continued even as a new administration came to power seeking to justify new conflicts and invasions. (5) The Mexican Revolution, which began with the overthrow of President Porfirio Diaz in 1910, unfolded into a vast decade-long struggle among factional and popular forces across the country. The politics as well as the fighting threatened U.S. interests in Mexico. (6) Wilson sent the U.S. Navy to occupy Veracruz in April 1914. The marines succeeded in taking over the city after battling soldiers and civilians. With the Americans occupying Mexico's most important seaport for seven months, shuttling expatriate Americans out of the country, and seeking to influence Mexico's political leadership, this invasion aided Venustiano Carranza's rise to the presidency of Mexico although the Mexican leader was opposed to the American occupation. Carranza initially enjoyed the support of the peasant-backed popular leaders and guerrilla fighters Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Emiliano Zapata. It did not take long before this alliance broke up in the wake of Carranza's inability to enact swift land reform measures. The revolution thus entered another bloody phase.

Nineteen marines had died in the fighting in Veracruz, all of them white. U.S. Navy officials returned their bodies on the battleship Montana to New York and buried the remains of seventeen in the grounds of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and delivered those of the other two casualties to their hometowns for burial in local cemeteries. The Brooklyn funeral, planned by the U.S. Navy, was scheduled for 11 May. A few weeks earlier, Wilson had indicated that he would not attend the ceremony. But as the day approached, Wilson boarded the presidential yacht and sailed to New York. Beginning at the Battery, an elaborate funeral procession observed by tens of thousands of onlookers took the dead through Manhattan and across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. Wilson followed the procession in a carriage. At City Hall, Mayor John Mitchell delivered a eulogy and laid a wreath on one of the coffins.

He had worked with the churches and the business community to ring bells and stop work during the funeral. When the procession reached the Navy Yard, the public as well as the marchers filled the area. Accompanying Wilson to the stage was the Congressional Committee, the representatives of the New York State Assembly, Wilson's secretary Joseph Tumulty, Mayor Mitchell, the Secretary of the Navy, the Governor of New York, and numerous other representatives of the Navy, city, and state government. Pallbearers then carried in the flag-draped coffins to a military salute. (7)

Having listened to the roll call of the dead before he rose to speak, Wilson reminded the audience that the American nation "consists of all the sturdy elements and of all the best elements of the whole globe." Those who died, claimed the President, were "not Irishmen or Germans or Frenchmen or Hebrews any more. They were not when they went to Vera Cruz; they were Americans, everyone one of them, and with no difference in their Americanism because of the stock from which they came." He added "they were in a peculiar sense of our blood and they proved it by showing that they were of our spirit." He turned from the sacrifice of soldiers in Mexico to speak about the sacrifice of citizenship at home:
   I never went into battle, I never was under fire
   but I fancy that there are some things just as
   hard to do as to go under fire. I fancy that it
   is just as hard to do your duty when men are
   sneering at you as when they are shooting at
   you. When they shoot at you they can only
   take your natural life; when they sneer at you
   they can wound your heart, and men who are
   brave enough, steadfast enough, steady in the
   principles enough, to go about their duty with
   regard to their fellowmen. (8)


Thus the President conflated a questionable military intervention in a foreign country with a demonstration of national identity and civic purpose. "We have gone down to Mexico to serve mankind if we can find out the way," he continued, "we do not want to fight the Mexicans." Rather, the President claimed, "we want to serve the Mexicans if we can, because we know how we would like to be free and how we would like to be served if there were friends standing by ready to serve us." Wilson ennobled the Veracruz operation as well as the Veracruz dead, saying "A war of aggression is not a war in which it is a proud thing to die, but a war of service is a thing in which it is a proud thing to die." (9) Wilson admonished citizens to "put the utmost energy of every power that we have into the service of our fellow-men, never sparing ourselves, not condescending to think of what is going to happen to ourselves, but ready, if need be, to go to the utter length of complete self-sacrifice." He concluded "May God grant to all of us that vision of patriotic service which here in solemnity and grief and pride is borne in upon our hearts and consciences." (10)

This intervention in Mexico flowed from an imperial project thinly disguised in Wilson's rhetoric as a national cause. Two years later, as Europeans were in the abyss of war, Wilson ordered a second invasion of Mexico to capture Francisco "Pancho" Villa for attacking towns on the U.S. side of the border. Although Wilson sought to keep the U.S. neutral in the conflict between the Central and Allied powers of Europe, Villa's assaults exposed the vulnerability of the American border and with it America's ability to stabilize the Western hemisphere at a time when borders and spheres of influence in Europe were in flux. Several skirmishes ensued but the biggest clash of the campaign happened in the summer of 1916 at Carrizal. General John J. Pershing, the commanding general in charge of the invasion, sent Company C and Company K of the black Tenth Cavalry under the command of a white officer, Captain Charles Boyd, to investigate a reported sighting of Villa. Boyd missed Villa's soldiers but ran into Mexican federal troops; an unplanned skirmish ensued. Boyd and several soldiers died in the battle, which the Carranza government declared a federale victory. The American press began investigating the skirmish as American officials began preparing for a full-scale invasion of Mexico. (11)

The soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry became instant national heroes despite the fact that they had lost a skirmish on an expedition that seemed to violate Mexican sovereignty. The New York Times described the men as heroic and reported, "American negro troopers faced almost certain death at Carrizal with smiles on their lips, and they burst into song once or twice as they fought their grim fight against odds." Historian James N. Leiker notes: "Not since the Spanish-American War had public praise of this magnitude occurred for African American soldiers." (12) These black soldiers' sacrifices represented the vitality of the U.S. to protect American interests on the U.S. side of the border and control political events within the Western hemisphere. The traditional practices of national commemoration thus meant that these black bodies would be transported to Arlington National Cemetery for a proper memorial as "sainted dead" in the nation's capital. (13) In the buildup to their imminent arrival to Washington, D.C., "Congress unanimously approved a resolution that all House members who had served the Union and Confederate armies and the Spanish-American War would form a committee to attend the funeral at Arlington." (14) Wilson himself had established a precedent for commemorating the dead from Mexico. (15) He delivered a memorial address to the fallen white sailors and marines from the 1914 occupation of Vera Cruz that intricately wove ethnicity into the tapestry of American citizenship and patriotism. In 1916, when the bodies were black, Wilson only attended the funeral and did not speak. Despite the increased tensions and the possible invasion of Mexico looming, the President's only official act was to lay wreaths on the men's caskets. (16) Despite his commitment to racial segregation, Wilson was forced to join the nation in acknowledging that these men had sacrificed their lives acting nobly for the American nation and the President's failed invasion. The funeral was an acknowledgement that these men too had helped secure American hegemony in the Western hemisphere and again highlighted how the nature of black bodies and white borders represented the interplay between the U.S. nation and American empire.

Some were intensely aware of how race made the distant internal and external places of the American empire contiguous. The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, published some articles on the Carrizal dead but devoted more column space to an event in Waco, Texas that occurred about the same time but got much less press coverage: the lynching and live burning of Jesse Washington. Washington was the black "mentally deficient" field hand of the Fryar family on a farm six miles outside of Waco. When Mrs. Fryar was found dead at her home, Washington was arrested and transported to Waco and then a neighboring county to avoid the pursuing lynch mob. Here he confessed, under duress, to murdering Mrs. Fryar. He was transported to Dallas, Texas for arraignment, narrowly avoiding another lynch mob who had found out his location. Dallas authorities promised to act promptly if the lynch mob would disperse. Mob leaders agreed and Washington produced a second confession in Dallas (possibly to help ameliorate the lynch mob), waived his legal rights, and was set for a trial that would take place in Waco. Mrs. Fryar had died on 8 May and Washington's trial began and ended a week later on 15 May. He was sentenced to death by hanging the same day.

This trial unfolded within Waco's political context. The sheriff of Waco, S. S. Fleming, was standing for re-election and Justice R. I. Munroe, a member of the city's political machine, had been appointed by the Governor of Texas. Over 2,000 people came to the courthouse to hear the trial and many began making plans to abduct Washington. The jury reached a verdict by 11:22 AM. As Judge Munroe was writing the verdict in the docket the crowd inside the courthouse surged forward. Sheriff Fleming had slipped out of the courthouse as the verdict was read. Judge Munroe did nothing as the crowd grabbed Washington, dragged him out of the courthouse, wrapped him in chains, took him through the streets for one-half-mile to City Hall, and lynched him from a tree before burning him alive. Washington's remains were left smoldering until his torso was tied with a chain to a saddled horse and once again dragged through the streets of downtown Waco. (17)

The Crisis sent an eleven-page supplement about Waco to readers in July 1916. The next edition in August led with an editorial that cleverly placed two letters in side-by-side columns. These letters juxtaposed the U.S. invasion of Mexico with the federal government's disregard for domestic lynchings, not only in Texas but in Georgia and elsewhere. In one column, a letter "written to Mexico" by Secretary of State Robert Lansing was reprinted and in the adjacent column a second letter "which was not written to Georgia" by President Wilson appeared. The first column printed verbatim a threat from Secretary Lansing demanding that President Carranza control the bandits crossing the American border or else the United States would not hesitate to invade Mexico. It concluded, "for if the Government of Mexico cannot protect the lives and property of Americans, exposed to attack from Mexicans, the Government of the United States is duty bound, so far as it can, to do so." The second letter borrowed Lansing's language but with strategic additions and subtractions--denoted in the text by italics--that recontextualized American foreign policy with Mexico into a U.S. federal policy with the state of Georgia. In this imaginary letter, President Wilson threatened to invade Georgia unless state officials can end lynching in the state. It concluded, "For if Georgia cannot protect the lives and property of American citizens the United States is in duty bound, so far as it can, to do so." (18)

The color line was usually invisible even if most people knew where it was located. Its invisibility made it easier to obscure the American imperial project at home and abroad. If nation-states and empires occupy overlapping locations, then mapping these places can help visualize the American repertoire of power. Race provides one key in the map legend of this mapping project precisely because it intersects locations, near and far and foreign and domestic, and reveals their side-by-side nature. Not only were Roosevelt and Wilson aware in their own way of these connections and contiguities, but, as The Crisis shows, so were those made vulnerable to the violence of the color line and increasingly determined to challenge it wherever they found it.

Shannon Bontrager, Georgia Highlands College

(1) Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 8.

(2) Ibid.

(3) "President Strikes at Army Critics," New York Times, 30 May 1902.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 84.

(6) Meanwhile, American expatriates accumulated land in Mexico and investors dreamed of the construction of a railroad that would connect North American producers to Latin American natural resources. Instability in Mexico threatened their interests. Outgoing President William Howard Taft supported Mexican General Victoriano Huerta's coup d'etat, which he hoped would bring a friendly government to power and put an end to disorder in Mexico. For a magisterial study of the Mexican Revolutions and the role of Americans and the U.S. government, see John Mason Hart, Empire and Revolution: The Americans in Mexico since the Civil War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

(7) "Nation Honors Vera Cruz Dead in Grieving City." New York Times, 12 May 1914.

(8) "War is a Symbol of Duty," New York Times, 12 May 1914.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) "Mexicans Dug Pitfall, Used or Truce," New York Times, 23 June 1916; "Americans to Blame Says Mexican Official," New York Times, 23 June 1916; "Seek Only Nation's Peace," New York Times, 23 June 1916; "Describe Troops in Hopeless Fight," New York Times, 24 June 1916; Praises Courageous Band," New York Times, 27 June 1916.

(12) "No Quarter at Carrizal," New York Times, 30 June 1916; James N. Leiker, Racial Borders: Black Soldiers Along the Rio Grande (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), 163-170. For an overview, see David J. Hellwig, "The Afro-American Press and Woodrow Wilson's Mexican Policy, 1913-1917," Phylon 48 (Winter 1987): 264. He observes, "By far the most distinctive feature of the black press's response was its emphasis on the discrepancy between Woodrow Wilson's eagerness to help the poor and establish democratic institutions in Mexico and his silence on the treatment of black Americans."

(13) Letter, Henderson National Memorial Civil Rights League to Woodrow Wilson, 27 June 1916, NA, RG 92, Office of the Quartermaster General, Cemeterial Division, 1917-1922, Box 14, Folder Corrizal, Mexico.

(14) Leiker, Racial Borders, 163-170.

(15) "President May Speak at the Graves," New York Times, 8 July 1916.

(16) "Carrizal Dead Honored," New York Times, 8 July 1916; Leiker, Racial Borders, 163-170.

(17) "The Waco Horror," Supplement to The Crisis, July 1916. http://library.brown.edu/ pdfs/1292363091648500.pdf, accessed 26 August 2015.

(18) Editorial, "Two Letters," The Crisis, August 1916, 163-65. http://library.brown.edu/ pdfs/1292419172976625.pdf, accessed 26 August 2015.
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Title Annotation:Special Section: Border Crossings and Color Bars
Author:Bontrager, Shannon
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2015
Words:3437
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