Fighting Racism in the Trenches: A Colored Woman in World War I

The exhibition tells the story of Kathryn Magnolia Johnson, who was among a small group of African American women who served during World War I. As secretaries with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), these remarkable women supported the African American service members of the American Expeditionary Forces. Using artifacts and archival materials, this exhibition highlights Johnson’s service in Europe and her life’s work as an educator and activist.



Kathryn Magnolia Johnson


Kathryn Magnolia Johnson’s service in World War I was an extension of her lifelong pursuit of providing education opportunities for African Americans across the country.  In the spring of 1918, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) assigned Kathryn Johnson, Addie Hunton, and Helen Curtis to serve two hundred thousand African American non-combatant troops in France.  The YMCA charged them with the administration of food, the offer of YMCA facilities, and the encouragement of soldiers.  The US Army and YMCA also permitted African American women welfare workers in France to capture and hold the attention and affections of black soldiers and avert their attention from the white French women.


Despite the limited scope of her role, Kathryn M. Johnson seized the chance to make educational opportunities, formal and informal, for her race brothers during the war that they could not receive in the United States.  Her tenacity and determination actualized her goals from ideas into reality, changed her life and the lives of the men she served, and characterized her career.  Following her return home, Johnson dedicated her life to the spread of literacy in African American communities, social and political activism, and to provide resources for African American girls to pursue an education.  She forsook a women’s conventional lifestyle in pursuit of equality.


Once they were discharged from service, Y secretaries and soldiers were released from strict censorship from the U.S. Army.   Y secretaries disseminated detailed accounts of their experiences in France, including the discriminatory treatment by the YMCA and the US Army.  From 1919 until 1932 Johnson traveled the country, mainly through the Jim Crow South, spreading ideas of racial consciousness at the heart of the New Negro Movement, and sold books from her “Two Foot Shelf of Negro Literature.”


In 1932, she moved to Chicago and became a prominent activist, in partnership with Ezella Mathis Carter, Johnson established the Ezella Mathis Carter Home for Colored Working Women in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood.  The home provided resources and housing for African American girls and young women who pursued an education.  In 1940, Johnson ran for the first Congressional District of Illinois.  Johnson’s run for Congress embodied the same tenacity of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  Kathryn Magnolia Johnson spent her life breaking barriers for African American women and the people at large.  Kathryn Magnolia Johnson remained a civil rights activist, and feminist until she died on November 13, 1954.




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