Duplicate Certificates of Identity, 1908 - 1943 - Anna May Wong. Source: National Archives

To be a Citizen?

The History of Becoming American

Around three quarters of a million people applied to be American Citizens in 2017. But what does citizenship actually mean? The way Americans have defined citizenship has changed over time and many have found their citizenship challenged, undermined, resisted and even revoked. On this episode of BackStory, Brian, Nathan and Joanne discover the path to citizenship has never been easy.

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

July 4th at Monticello. @Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
July 4th at Monticello. @Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
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Nathan Connolly: When we think about the struggle for African American civil rights, a lot of us cast our minds back to the post-World War II era in the 1950s and ’60s. But a lot of the activist organizations from that period had their roots in the years following World War I. African Americans participated in that earlier war in a big way. Back in 2014, we found out about one of them. A woman named Kathryn Johnson. She was one of many thousands of Black Americans whose experiences in World War I profoundly affected their views of the nation and left them more determined than ever to fight for justice.

Brian Balogh: Kathryn Johnson was born to a middle-class family in Ohio in the years following the Civil War. When she was in her 20s, she moved down South, first to teach in an all-Black college in North Carolina and then in Arkansas. It was right around this time that Jim Crow laws and the violence that enforced those laws were tightening their grip on the South. In 1906, her Arkansas school was attacked and nearly burned down by white rioters. That experience taught her a lot.

Adriane L.-S.: Being upright and being right is never going to be enough.

Brian Balogh: This is historian, Catherine Lentz-Smith, who profiles Johnson in her book, Freedom Struggles.

Adriane L.-S.: She wants to do more. She wants to be more forceful. She wants to be out in the world making a difference and teaching doesn’t allow her to do that.

Brian Balogh: So Johnson finds a place in the nascent Black freedom struggle, becoming a field organizer for the newly formed NAACP and with the advent of World War I, Johnson and a lot of these African American activists see an opportunity.

Adriane L.-S.: When the US finally entered the First World War called in this beautiful, flowery, inspiring language by Woodrow Wilson to a war for democracy, to a war that would be about self-determination and all sorts of things that African Americans living in Woodrow Wilson’s United States didn’t have but hoped to have, many of them, Johnson among them saw the war as an opportunity to show the rest of America that they were capable of carrying the uniform, showing valor, doing all of the things that a citizen would do.

Brian Balogh: Nearly 400,000 African Americans served in the war, half of them serving abroad. Most worked as laborers. There were also some Black civilians who joined the war effort as volunteers. Johnson was one of them and as a volunteer for the YMCA in France, she had a front row view of a society where Black people were treated very differently than they were back home.

Adriane L.-S.: Johnson herself talks about sitting on public transportation and seeing a white woman give up her seat for a French colonial African soldier and marveling that that would never ever happen in the United States.

Brian Balogh: But Jim Crow followed African American soldiers to France in both official and unofficial ways. Camps were segregated and Black soldiers were disciplined for talking to white French women. They were given the worst jobs on bases and they were thrown in the brig when they balked at that work. Fights between white and Black soldiers were frequent. As the peace treaty was signed in Paris, Black soldiers and civilians disillusioned by the unmet promises of the war and the unchanged segregation in the United States, turned with a new energy to political organizing.

Brian Balogh: NAACP chapters proliferated. Memberships spiked in Black nationalist organizations like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Adriane L.-S.: African Americans realized that they had to make their demands and defend themselves rather than to prove themselves and show themselves worthy. That’s a very different strategy. Well, it’s a mediumly different strategy than the one that they had been pursuing before.

Brian Balogh: And was it that no proof could be stronger than the willingness to die for their country, yet it seemed to have no impact whatsoever?

Adriane L.-S.: Not only did it have no impact, it incited defenders of white supremacy. It provoked them into greater repression and violence.

Brian Balogh: That violence peaked in a six-month period in 1919 that came to be known as the Red Summer. Beginning in April of 1919, about 30 major riots rocked towns and major cities including Washington, DC and Chicago. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands injured as white rioters set upon Black neighborhoods. Lynching spiked in the South with several Black soldiers in uniform among the victims.

Adriane L.-S.: But what you see in Chicago, what you see in DC, what you see elsewhere are veterans bringing their military training to bear and really doing organized defense of their neighborhoods to keep white rampagers out. In Chicago, for example, veterans go to the armory of the 8th Illinois National Guard, gather arms, and then station themselves at strategic corners of their neighborhood to defend from incursions.

Brian Balogh: Despite violent resistance, Black political organizations continued to grow throughout the ’20s and ’30s. Kathryn Johnson continued in a lot of these circles. She stayed active with the NAACP and Garvey’s group and she worked in settlement houses in Chicago helping the waves of Black families who had moved there during and right after the war. In the ’30s, she joined solidarity movements with freedom struggles in Africa. In a lot of ways, her work was typical for a Black activist of this era.

Adriane L.-S.: Where she diverges is in 1940 when she decides to run for Congress, which not many Black women opted to do in 1940. And she knew she wasn’t going to win, but she has a critique and she wants a platform and interestingly enough, she’s trying to keep the US out of World War II because she does not believe that the war will serve either the purpose of the African American freedom struggle or the wellbeing of the nation.

Brian Balogh: That’s Adriane Lentz-Smith. She’s a historian at Duke University and the author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.

Brian Balogh: Boy, Joanne, Nathan, we’ve heard about some pretty mighty struggles over who can be a citizen, who can stay a citizen, but my question for you is, well, what does citizenship mean over the centuries in the United States?

Joanne Freeman: Well, I can certainly plunge in with those early centuries. It’s striking. I think we think about citizenship as a 19th and 20th century issue, but the fact of the matter is, since the dawning of the republic, we’ve been trying to figure out what being a citizen means because before there was a United States, we were subjects. American colonists were not citizens, they were subjects. Being a subject, being subjected to someone else’s power, it’s not a matter of being a part of a community. It’s part of being governed over by a ruler.

Joanne Freeman: But the beginning of the republic, suddenly the question is we’re no longer subjects, we’re citizens and what does that mean? So from the beginning from the republic, I mean there is a gender component and a racial component so there is a focus on white male citizenship and what it means, the franchise and such things are still at that moment linked to being white and male. But what’s interesting about that early period is that because a republic was an experimental form of governance in a world of monarchies, people really were thinking about what it meant to be a citizen of a republic.

Joanne Freeman: Although women didn’t have the vote, they were seen as performing really important moral duty as citizens of a republic. They were seen as being the people who are going to educate and raise children to become good, small, republican citizens in the future and one of the things that did was actually make women’s education particularly important. There was sort of unanticipated plus to it in that if women were going to do that kind of service work, that kind of moral work, they had to be educated for it, and so they were a part of the process of creating and promoting good citizenship in the republic from the very beginning.

Nathan Connolly: Yeah man, I think the evolution of our notions of citizenship are constantly connected to and tethered to real struggles. I mean you think about Reconstruction and the effort to try to deal with the problem of formerly enslaved persons. There, just as Joanne pointed to, there were both gender and racialized expressions of citizenship. I mean for instance, in the light of the fact that women couldn’t vote, many of them exercised influence relative to their husbands and male partners to vote particular ways in elections in the South. So even as disenfranchised subjects effectively of the US state, many Black women had a kind of Republican ideal, a sense of the common good, a sense of being governed for the people and by the people that they tried to articulate by way of singular manhood suffrage.

Nathan Connolly: It’s one of the amazing stories actually of the country and the evolution of voting rights. Obviously, when you think about what was mentioned earlier by way of World War I and the kinds of crises that were created and just the notion of service as a path to citizenship, that too was embedded in these very real Republican ideals, that you’re supposed to somehow build your case or make your claims on certain kinds of privileges by virtue of demonstrating that you’re part of this collective, engaged in a large national project.

Nathan Connolly: But this also is the kind of thing that waxes and wanes, as we learned. In the wake of the frustration of World War I, many people begin to adopt what we would consider to be liberal or much more individualized understandings of their rights and say, “You know what? I’m going to measure my rights not by my ability to fight for my country necessarily or in that expectation, but simply by virtue of what I can purchase at the cash register or by virtue of my ability to actually achieve the franchise in a singular manner both for me and now, post-1924, my wife who also wishes to vote.”

Nathan Connolly: So I think it’s really important to recognize that there’s always going to be both kind of conventional liberal and conventional Republican elements in how we define our citizenship, even going so far as to point out that the Black Panther Party and other groups from the ’60s in the wake of this, again, firestorm around citizenship, they’re talking about, “Power to the people,” almost resuscitating classical early Republic visions of Republicanism, but for radical purposes. I think it’s really powerful to think through the fact that Americans have demonstrated a certain nimbleness around being able to articulate visions that were both community-based and collectively-based like classical Republicanism, but also thinking about citizenship in very individualized terms.

Brian Balogh: I want to go back to that bifurcation that both of you talked about between the formal privileges of citizenship and that kind of service that you talked about. I think one of the reasons for closing the gap between the two, and I agree with you, Nathan, that this happened largely in the early 20th century began to close the gap more dramatically, is that women and African Americans began to say, “Hey. We’ve been doing service all along, dying for our country in its wars or whether it’s being the catalyst and the driving force behind education, behind all kinds of civic groups that really make the Republic work. Why is it that some people, mainly white men, get all these bundle of rights without all of that? They get that automatically.”

Brian Balogh: I think that gap between having to prove yourself as a citizen and, well, automatically you’re a citizen because you were born white and you were born male really begins to close, the gap begins to close in the 20th century.

Joanne Freeman: To what degree is what you’re talking about there. Because there’s a political component of citizenship, there’s a cultural component of citizenship. There’s this service/moralistic component which is a little bit of both. To what degree does the assumption about citizenship change with different assumptions about the state, which I suppose you could say kind of began in the late 19th century, but really are a 20th century phenomenon. How are people’s claims for citizenship being heard in a different kind of a way?

Nathan Connolly: I think that gap, Joanne, between what is said and what is heard gets exactly at the cultural practice that’s always bound up with citizenship. I mean you have people who are entering into contracts, who are trying to travel internationally, who are trying to have some kind of voice at the local level, or simply traveling to Washington to get certain grievances met. People are, in their day to day lives, are going to participate in the stuff of citizenship and whether or not we recognize it or the courts adjudicate as if it is citizenship is, I think, a different matter completely.

Nathan Connolly: I think, to your point, there are parallel stories that are related, but in very real ways are distinct, which is that people are going to try to find ways of making it in the United States specifically by doing all the things that we would call the stuff of citizenship, simply pursuing their happiness. But oftentimes, it becomes clear that there are going to be impediments, oftentimes government impediments, that get in the way of that happiness being realized. That, to me, that disconnect between what people try to do in their day to day lives and what then ultimately becomes the barriers that they face, that’s where citizenship is felt, where it derives its meaning, and where we can really clearly look to see what the measure of it is in any given point in time.

Brian Balogh: Well, we’ve heard in this show that citizenship can be earned, struggled for, granted, but it can also be removed. Do either of you feel that we’re at a moment in time that the possibility of citizenship being removed is particularly acute?

Nathan Connolly: Oh, no question. I mean there’s been evidence that the current administration is looking into the process of denaturalization, taking people who’ve been naturalized as American citizens and stripping them of that right. That’s a feature of, again as we’ve learned, a history of expatriations certainly, but it’s also, I think, a very distinctive political project that is rooted in controlling elections and minimizing certain kinds of demographic transformations that the country is experiencing, particularly along immigrant lines.

Nathan Connolly: I think this is a front and center question and will be for quite some time. I think it also invites us to consider what are the ways in which we can be far better at protecting people’s day to day lives and imbuing them with the entitlements of citizenship even if they’re not citizens. This is so much of what the debate is around legal versus illegal immigration. What do you allow people to do if they don’t have citizenship? Can they get a driver’s license? Can they open a business? What’s possible?

Nathan Connolly: I think in a lot of ways that immigration debate and still the gender and sexuality debate are going to drive these questions to new and sharper areas.

Joanne Freeman: But I do think that the importance of this moment is it’s such a reminder of the value and the meaning of citizenship and the contested nature of citizenship, that that never stops being negotiated and that it should never be something that’s taken for granted. That’s going to do it for us today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org or send an email to backstory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at BackStory Radio. If you enjoyed hearing the segment about African American rights after World War I from 2014, you’ll find thousands more stories in our archive at the BackStory website.

Nathan Connolly: Special thanks this week to our voice actors, James Scales, and Joli Millner. And as always, the Johns Hopkins studio in Baltimore.

Brian Balogh: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Johns Hopkins University, and The National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Joanne Freeman: One last thought for today, I’m talking to you from the Yale Broadcast Center and I just want to offer a word on behalf of Phil Kearney who worked here alongside me bringing BackStory to life. He was a wonderful citizen for radio, for podcasting, and for BackStory and he’ll be deeply missed.

Speaker 11: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.

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Citizenship Lesson Set

Download the Citizenship Lesson Set

The question of citizenship is one that permeates a conversation of US History. From the founding documents and their tension with the Alien and Sedition Act, to the story of enslaved Africans, Dred Scot, and the Reconstruction Amendments, and throughout US History with movements of nativism and protectionist immigration policies. As teachers we return to these themes throughout our coursework. This lesson treatment takes a closer look at the sectional crisis building from 1830 to 1860 and the impact of The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and asks students to define citizenship and inclusion for various groups.


Classroom Connections No. 1: The Chinese Exclusion Act (video)

Discussion Questions and Additional Resources for the video