The character Malachi witnesses the factual march of WWI veterans through Middleburg, VA, heading to Washington, D.C. in 1932. He speaks with some of its soldiers, hoping to lobby Congress for a promised bonus.
(Malachi is representative of the many brave African Americans who served in WWI, fighting on Europe’s front lines in the segregated 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions. Some, like the 369th Regiment, known as the Harlem Hell-fighters, were assigned to the French Army in April 1918, fighting in harrowing battles such as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. One hundred and seventy of them received France’s much honored Croix de Guerre medal for bravery. These veterans returned to the United States expecting their courage under fire and their service to bring them more equality back home. Tragically, this was not the case. They met a backlash of racism and resentment from whites—friction that boiled up into what was one of the most violent periods in American history, the “Red Summer” of 1919 when race riots rocked twenty-six cities across the United States. Some Black veterans were even attacked as their communities held parades to honor their service overseas. For more, please see the section on Black WWI Veterans)
By contrast, the “Bonus Army” of 1932 was a stunning model of integration and joint acceptance. Thousands of veterans—white and black—from across the nation, marched together to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for a bonus that had been promised to be delivered in 1945. (Compensation for the income they’d lost during their time fighting overseas—like back wages.) But given the Depression’s financial devastation, the veterans needed the money then rather than later.
Patriotic and hopeful, they massed quietly and kept vigil by the Capitol as Congress deliberated, many of them bringing their children along to witness history. They camped in nearby Anacostia, creating an impressively organized mini town of tents and quickly built cabins. They divided it into small streets named for states. The Salvation Army ran a library in its middle. Each night the veterans and their families gathered for music—gospel, blues, country, popular—Blacks and whites listening and performing together. Visitors were astonished by the two races peacefully and happily sharing billets, chores, and rations.
Local authorities and the regular Army, however, saw the veterans’ growing numbers and integrated cooperation as threatening, possibly motivated and manipulated by “subversive,” socialist or communist ideology. The House passed the bill. But when the Senate voted it down, President Hoover sent in troops to drive the Bonus Army out of Washington and destroy their encampment—even though the veterans had already dispersed themselves, despite their shocked disappointment, still singing, “America, the Beautiful.”
For many, this cruelty was the last straw in the Hoover administration’s disregard for the plight of the average American. They turned their attention and support to the then relatively unknown progressive democrat, FDR.
For more about the Bonus Army: