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That Time the US Military Banned Soldiers From Talking to Black Women

By Scott W. Stern

US soldiers returning to America after World War I
US soldiers returning to America after World War I

As the United States prepared to enter World War I in the spring of 1917, and as millions of young men gathered in dozens of military training camps across the country, federal officials were worried: these young men might get sick. They might contract pneumonia, tuberculosis, the flu, or, most terrifying of all, syphilis or gonorrhea.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), fretted the Army’s chief medical officer in 1917, were “the greatest cause of disability in the army.” And he had a point: in 1917, STIs landed more enlisted men in the infirmary than any other infection. This was, after all, decades before the creation of antibiotics and sulfa drugs, back when injections of mercury were among the most common treatment for STIs.

So the brass hastily began trying to prevent soldiers from contracting these dreaded infections. Military higher-ups took to giving the young recruits “scare talks” about the dangers posed by prostitutes and promiscuous women, who were thought to disproportionately spread STIs. “A German Bullet Is Cleaner Than A Whore,” read one Army poster. Soldiers who defied the rules and slept with prostitutes could avoid punishment if they admitted to superiors what they’d done and reported for what was, at the time, a modern STI treatment—a series of painful injections directly into the penis.

Meanwhile, federal authorities urged local officials to detain any and every woman whom they “reasonably suspected” of having an STI, forcibly examine her, and then imprison the infected ones for mandatory treatment. In one revealing letter, a federal agent named Allison T. French—who’d impressed his bosses by writing threatening letters to judges in San Francisco until they agreed to impose harsher sentences of women convicted of prostitution—called this program “waging war on the women.” As I detail in my book, The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women, officials detained, examined, and incarcerated tens of thousands of women during these years, usually without due process, all in the name of wiping out STIs.

Yet there was an additional way the military tried to wipe out STIs, one no historian has ever discussed at any length. From 1917 to 1918, dozens of military camps across the country banned soldiers from talking to, or even walking next to, black women.

I first came across this racist practice in a memo I found at the massive National Archives center in College Park, Maryland. A memo written by the aforementioned Lieutenant French on December 29, 1917, surveyed reports of military police from twenty-eight military training camps. The “[g]eneral practice” across these twenty-eight camps, French recorded, included “Prohibit[ing] enlisted men visiting sections of town populated by negroes” and even “Arrest[ing] enlisted men talking to, or in company with, negro women.”

This memo gave me pause. I had spent years researching the World War I-era incarceration of women. I knew that, in their system of arrests and examinations, federal and local officials had disproportionately harassed black women. They justified this by making astoundingly racist claims such as, “the female of this race are unmoral” and “negro women exercise little or no care in protecting themselves or in caring for themselves in the matter of gonorrhea.” I knew that, once detained, black women were far more likely to be locked in less desirable institutions—filthy jails and crowded stockades, rather than utopian reformatories. Yet I had never read that military officers nationwide arrested enlisted men who were found talking to, or even physically near, black women. I knew that the military was internally segregated at this time, but I had never heard of this outward-facing bigotry, dictating whom soldiers were even allowed to talk to.

I set out to find out more about this. In the end, I didn’t find much. A few extant records affirmed Lieutenant French’s memo. In Columbia, South Carolina, for example, at the urging of federal agents, the commanding general “issued an order prohibiting soldiers from talking to or walking with negro women.” An observer from the Army’s Sanitary Corps noted, “The enforcement of this order has gone towards solving the negro prostitute problem at that camp.” Yet the details of how this prohibition worked—how assiduously it was enforced, how black women reacted to it—were nowhere to be found.

I found a somewhat more contextualized reference to this prohibition in a May 29, 1918, memo written by Bascom Johnson, a lawyer, investigator, former US Olympian, and high-ranking federal official, entitled, “Venereal Disease Among Colored Troops and Colored Civilian Population.” In it, Johnson lamented the fact that in many military communities, “beyond declaring certain colored districts out of bounds to troops and forbidding white soldiers to converse with colored women, the problem has been ignored.” There could be no progress, Johnson warned his readers, until military and civilian authorities adopted “drastic measures to suppress colored prostitutes, clandestine and professional.” Obviously, he continued, white soldiers should be kept out of black districts, but that could only help “in a small degree,” since it could not “keep the colored women in.” It was not “feasible,” Johnson lamented, “to keep colored troops out of colored districts generally.”

Thus, apparently, black men were not always banned from speaking with black women, as white men were. Yet Johnson’s memo exemplifies the racist stereotypes that shaped the government’s treatment of black men as well. Many government officials viewed black men, like black women, as sexually insatiable, and thus promiscuous, and thus dangerous. Local officials in one Texas community, for instance, refused federal demands to close a district notorious for prostitution because they feared that doing so would lead the black soldiers stationed nearby to commit rape. At many military camps, all black soldiers (but not all white soldiers) had to take the painful penile injections every time they returned from leave, since officials believed the black soldiers surely had sex every time they set foot off camp.

Many historians have done important work to document the military’s racist past, and how this past is connected to the present. Yet Lieutenant French’s memo convinces me, for one, that there is so much work yet to be done. That the US military banned soldiers across the country from so much as talking to, or even walking near, black women, is one of many forgotten parts of this racist past that must be examined far more closely.


About the Author 

Scott W. SternScott W. Stern is the author of The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottWStern