African Americans - The league of nations and the pan-african congress

World War I shattered the balance of power in Europe and destroyed the Russian, German, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires. These state systems lost control of the diverse ethnic groups previously under their control. Subject nations and national minorities began demanding language rights, sovereignty, and democratic governments. When the Allies met in the Paris suburb of Versailles in 1919 to rebuild the world order, their agenda included the construction of nations in eastern Europe and the revitalization of the empires that remained. European debates on political autonomy and territoriality were the model for Asians and Africans seeking to bring their own interests to world attention.

The Pan-African Congress was an important vehicle for formulating and disseminating such demands. The association emerged from a 1900 London conference. Organized by a Trinidadian attorney resident in London and an African-American bishop, the congress brought together blacks from Britain and its colonies, the United States, and South Africa. The purpose was to discuss colonialism and racism and suggest strategies for reform. The association made little headway in its first twenty years, the zenith of European colonial domination of Africa. World War I provided an opportunity to renew its goals, however, and it planned a Paris conference that would convene simultaneously with the Versailles peace conference.

African-American leaders sought representation as observers at the peace conference and began discussing it before the war ended. Those most interested included the intellectual activist W. E. B. Du Bois, entrepreneur C. J. Walker, National Equal Rights League founder William Monroe Trotter, and activist Wells-Barnett. The Universal Negro Improvement Association, an international organization founded by Marcus Garvey, named delegates to the congress, including the labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Other interested organizations included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Race Congress. The thinking was that if representatives of black organizations were denied admission to the proceedings or audiences with principals, they could use the Pan-African Congress and their proximity to the peace talks to bring their issues to public attention.

President Woodrow Wilson led the U.S. delegation at Versailles. Wilson believed in international organization and saw the peace conference as an opportunity to put the United States permanently at the center of power in the global community. Like other Allied leaders, Wilson wished to maintain control over national minorities. He was, additionally, a committed segregationist who as president of Princeton University had excluded African-American students from dormitories, and as president of the United States had separated federal civil servants by race, placing black employees behind partitions.

The Wilson administration did not want minority observers or protesters in Europe. The State Department accordingly refused passports to most of the black Americans wishing to go to France. Those who managed to cross the Atlantic attended a Pan-African Congress composed of fifty-seven delegates who discussed, under the careful scrutiny of the French government, such issues as the status of defeated Germany's colonies and colonial reform. The more militant civil rights activists and nationalists were less interested in the Pan African Congress than in addressing the peace conference, the forum where decisions affecting the world's national minorities and subject peoples would be made. President Wilson was determined to prevent such initiatives. He refused to see either Trotter or a young Vietnamese leader, Nguyen That Thanh, later known as Ho Chi Minh. Wilson and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George prohibited the presence of delegates of colonized peoples and racial minorities at Versailles, but Du Bois succeeded in representing the NAACP at the first conference of the League of Nations in 1921.

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