Emily Greene Balch to Mary White Ovington, March 16, 1921


March 16, 1921.

Dear Miss Ovington,

I have been meaning for a long time to write to you and now am spurred on to actually do it by wanting to send to the Crisis the announcement of two concerts that we were instrumental in having here and which broke ground in this community for another way of conceiving the African contribution. I think negro minstrel burlesques were all the idea there was of negro music if there was even that.

But this, is by the way.

I also enclose a memorandum which we submitted to the League of Nations which was officially reprinted by the League and which has been sent by the Secretary General to all the Governments in the League and which will doubtless come up before the Mandates Commission on which we (with others) have secured the inclusion of a woman member, Mrs. Anna Wicksell of Sweden. It was to have come up before the Armaments Commission but some of the forces opposed got it excluded on a rather flimsy technicality.

Please get the matter considered seriously in the most effective way you can -- if the thing looks to you as it does to me.

The exploitation of "racial consciousness" in the matter of the use of negro or Moorish troops in the occupied regions has been disgusting. I don't doubt dreadful things have happened -- they always do under military occupation -- but neither do I doubt that they have been exaggerated both through hysteria and for propaganda. But in any case all this is a red herring across the trail and if in reaction against this outcry against the poor black soldier boys the leaders of the Africans neglect the enormous importance to themselves, as well as to all our [civilization] of the question of conscription of "native" troops, they make a tragic miscalculation in my belief.

We are [hypnotized] by the old classic form of plantation chattel slavery. It is just as literally slavery -- and to my thinking one even more painful and hidious -- to be forced against one's will to undergo military drill and barrack life and then be shipped to alien climates to fight other peoples fights as it is to grow rice under an overseer. [page 2]

It is also slavery of a wide-spreading and fast growing and most insidious type -- to make the lazy native work 1) either by levying taxes which must be paid in money (and in money which can only be got by working for the tax levying European) or 2) by taking control of the land of the natives so that they must starve or do the work demanded of them. This as of course you know is going on, on a vast scale, [today]. Too late to prevent it, perhaps too late to undo it, the little world of humane people will wake up to [realize] that a continent and more has been enslaved.

To return now to the question of conscription for war of native races. The Covenant of the League of Nations prohibits, in mandates "especially those of Central Africa" the so-called B mandates, "military training of natives for other than police purposes and for the defense of territory (art. XXII, see page 15 of copy of Covenant herewith). But we cannot trust to this [defense] even in this limited area.

The terms of mandates of this class have not yet been allowed to reach the public in spite of all the pressure to get their contents known. But it is known publicly that FRANCE has made certain "reserves" as the clause I cite and we are in for an era for competition

1) to secure control of "Native" cannon fodder so much more available than waits working class troops for social struggles, strikes, insurrections, etc.

2) to arm and train them for their task.

The two classes (besides us philanthropists who are a drop in the bucket) to really oppose this tendency are 1) the trade unionists and self-conscious working men in all countries and 2) the representatives and leaders of the natives themselves, who are the most immediately concerned.

Now is the moment when action might be effective. Bring pressure to bear on the Permanent Mandates Commission addressing it in care of The Secretary General of the League of Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.

I send you herewith a copy of the report of the Assembly of the League of its [subcommittee] on Mandates. Note that the draft mandate on 9 and following has no political status, it is just an outside suggestion.

I suggest your keeping in touch with Mr. John Harris, Secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society, Denison House, Vauxhall Bridge Road 296, London S.E. 1.

I hope this matter may look as important and as urgent to you and to Mr. [Du Bois] (to whom my most cordial regards) and to Mr. Villard as it does to me and that you will see your way not only to acting but to stimulating action. If the American feeling against the use of black troops on the Rhine could be given a just basis and a useful aim in opposing the levying of native troops anywhere it would serve our end most effectively. Of course the immense difficulty is English and French determination if not to extend at least to continue [page 3] their practices. One does not see England readily abandoning her Sikh troops nor France her Senegalese. But since we can't get all we want let us get what we can.

Yours always cordially,

E. G. Balch [signed]

I am sending you herewith

1)Notice of lecture and recital of Afro-American Music

2) Memorandum on the Use of Colonial troops.

3) Covenant of the League of Nations

4) Report of Assembly Committee on Mandates

5) Mr. Morel's pamphlet "Colonial Troops in Europe".

Miss Mary White Ovington
National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People
70 Fifth Avenue,
New York.