I didn’t know, not until I was combing through the Military Intelligence Division – Negro Subversion files. Documents in these files were collected by the U.S. government from 1917 – 1941. In these pages, I learned about Emmett J. Scott, the previous subject of my “do you know …” series, and his role as Special Assistant to the Secretary of War. Information collected focused on three areas – (1) radical black organizations and their activities, (2) discrimination against blacks and (3) performance by blacks in the military.
The files include press accounts, FBI investigative reports, commentary on the mood in black communities and correspondence from soldiers. Any letter by a soldier of color about mistreatment eventually found its way to Scott’s desk, as did the following letter that caught my attention with its eloquence.
“I am writing you this letter to protest my compulsory induction into the Military Service of the United States. I received my order of induction on July 30th, and when this letter reaches you I will be part of the Army and subject to its laws and discipline.
“In a letter recently to my local board, I truthfully stated, under oath, what I know to be the cause of my improper classification in the draft but as this was wholly a personal matter is it not the basis of my protest.”
“Since the United States entered the war, scores of Negro men, women and children have been lynched, burned and mutilated … Since the war began I have on five or six different occasions applied for enlistment in the Army or Navy, and each time I have met the sting of race prejudice and discrimination. And the same serpent lies in the path of hundreds of others who apply for enlistment daily. If, as is often argued, that certain provisions of the Constitution of the United States are not upheld because of states’ rights, surely, the Government can prevent discrimination and segregation in the Army and Navy, the Commander-in-Chief of which is the President of the United States.
Therefore, it is with a thousand and one grievances against my country and an ever burning sympathy for the many injustices heaped upon Negroes, even today, in this the supposed land of freedom, champion of democracy and defender of the helpless peoples that I go forth to battle; not as a patriotic soldier eager to defend a flag that defends me and mine but as a prisoner of war, shackled to a gun that shall spit fire in defense of a humanity which does not include me and to uphold the neutrality of the only other country that has outdone my own in the oppression of the black races of the earth. These are the bases of my protest.
If the expression of what one holds to be true, right and just is a crime, I respectfully submit myself to you as a representative of my Government or to your agents to be used or abused in defense of them, as you see fit.”
My curiosity was sparked!
Who was this William M. Kelley who had dared to write such a letter to the Secretary of War? He was a writer, that’s for sure. With a bit of online research I learned that he had also been editor, publisher and social activist.
Born in the 1890s in Chattanooga, TN, he would eventually make his way north to Chicago. There he was employed as a social worker by the Chicago League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (a branch of the organization now known as the Urban League). By the time he signed his draft papers he was living in New York.
As for what happened during the war, especially after he wrote that letter, that I don’t know. He did attain the rank of Sergeant First Class. By 1920, he was back at work publishing and promoting black writers and artists.
By 1922 he was hired as editor of the New York Amsterdam News, an important paper in the black community. Prior to that he’d worked as journalist and editor for other publications including the Champion Magazine in Chicago. In New York, he started his own magazine called Kelley’s Magazine. In its pages he published poets including Countee Cullen and Claude McKay as well as his own writing.
Based on newspaper articles from the 1920s and 1930s, he was a vocal advocate of building strong black business and encouraged support of those businesses by the local community. “Give your own enterprises the chances the same chance you allow to others. Hasten the time when we shall take our places among the commercial races of the world. Whenever possible walk a block to the nearest colored store and spend your money. It will do you and your children good.”
As managing editor of a major black publication based in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, he clearly knew the movers and shakers of the time.
He was politically active, as evidenced by his decision in 1929 to manage the campaign of Hubert T. Delaney. In an interview, Kelley said, “It’s about time for the Negro voter to demonstrate to the Republican party that they are serious in their desire to see a Negro elected to Congress from New York.”
When outlining his campaign plan, Kelley used the analogy of a military formation. Delany won the primary but lost the general election.
Upon Kelley’s departure from the New York Amsterdam in 1933, he co-founded and edited the Daily Citizen. It operated for less than a year. A 1940 census indicates he was employed by the Works Progress Administration. Then by the early 1940s, he was working as an editor with The Peoples’ Voice, a publication founded by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Eventually that paper folded as well.
On a family website, it’s noted that Kelley in his later years spent less time on writing and trying to launch newspapers. He worked a series of civil service jobs that provided more stable income to support his family. He died in October 1958. His son, an award-winning novelist and essayist, William Melvin Kelley Jr, passed away earlier this month.
To see actual pictures of William M. Kelley, view his descendants’ tribute here: https://kelleysmagazine.com/2016/02/29/a-portrait-of-pop/
Sources & Additional Reading
Hubert Thomas Delaney – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubert_Thomas_Delany
The Pittsburgh Courier, November 17, 1923, page 15.
New York Age, August 8, 1925, page 7.
New York Age, August 31, 1929, page 3 – Wm. E. Kelley to be Campaign Manager for Delany for Congress
Adam Clayton Powell Jr – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Clayton_Powell_Jr.