We Are Doing Our Bit, a poster advertising the 1918 Liberty Loan campaign, depicts a lone African American soldier engaged in close combat on the battlefields of Europe by an African American artist born in Lenox, Massachusetts, named Jane “Jennie” Touissant Welcome.
This patriotic poster, circulated during the final months of the First World War to encourage citizens to buy war savings bonds, is something of a mystery. Although more than 200,000 black men and women served in the war, images of African Americans in the posters produced in support of the war effort are very rare. In this instance, the banks and savings and loan companies where bonds could be purchased are all in the Boston metropolitan area, but the small African American population of Massachusetts (45,000 of almost 3,700,000 in 1915) makes it unlikely that this image was circulated as a direct appeal to people of color. Boston did have a local black military unit serving in France in 1918--Company L of the 372nd Infantry Regiment, originally part of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry—but the African American soldier depicted in the poster has a different ancestry.
Compared to the very high standard of illustration seen in many World War I posters, the figures in We Are Doing Our Bit are stereotypes and have almost no connection with what troops actually experienced on the Western Front. This poster was based on a painting by the self-described “Foremost Female Artist of the Race,” Mme. Touissant Welcome. The artist clearly was not familiar with the details of modern combat: by 1918 German soldiers had long since abandoned their spiked leather helmets in favor of steel ones, and no flags, even tattered ones, flew over late-war battlefields. She did, however, add a telling detail—her African American soldier’s canteen cover bears the number “15.” This is a reference to one of the most famous American units in World War I, the segregated 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment. The original designation of the 369th had been the 15th Regiment, New York National Guard. The men of the 369th referred to themselves as “Rattlers” (the symbol of the “old 15th” was a rattlesnake), but they were to become legendary as “Harlem’s Hellfighters.”
The image of the soldier in the poster is so rudimentary that it is not clear whether he is meant to be wearing the crested “Adrian” helmet of the French army (in the shape of a French firefighter’s helmet) or the flat-topped helmet more typically worn by British and most American soldiers. During the First World War, the institutional racism faced by African American soldiers was so great that the re-designated 15th and three other segregated United States regiments, including the Massachusetts soldiers in the 372nd, served with French rather than American forces and used their adopted army’s standard military equipment. Even their shoulder patches emblematically featured a blue Adrian helmet against a black background. However, when Mme. Touissant Welcome painted the Charge of the Colored Divisions: Somewhere in France (the source of the poster image) her purpose, was not to document details of the uniforms of her hometown unit, but to celebrate African American patriotism and the participation of black New Yorkers in the war effort.
Jane (“Jennie”) Louise VanDerZee (sometimes “Van Der Zee”) was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1884, the eldest of six children of John and Susan Brister VanDerZee. Before moving to Lenox, her mother and father had been butler and maid in the New York household of former president Ulysses S. Grant. Jennie, her father, and two of her brothers, including James Augustus, the future Harlem Renaissance photographer, moved to New York early in the 20th century where she and James both began careers in music and photography—Jennie branching out into art and early filmmaking. In 1910 she married inventor and business entrepreneur Ernest Touissant (sometimes “Toussaint”) Welcome. The same year, in the first issue of the NAACP journal, The Crisis, she published a full-page advertisement for the “Touissant Conservatory of Art and Music.” As the proprietors of the Touissant Studio, Ernest and Jennie Touissant Welcome copyrighted the Charge of the Colored Divisions in August 1918, and as the Touissant Motion Picture Exchange they advertised a serial documentary about black military service in the war, Doing Their Bit. For the Touissant Pictorial Company, Mme. Touissant Welcome compiled A Pictorial History of the Negro in the Great War, 1917-1918, which featured as a frontispiece illustration her Charge of the Colored Divisions. Jennie Louise Touissant Welcome, best known today as a pioneer African American filmmaker—and as James VanDerZee’s older sister—died in 1956.
During the First World War, the Committee on Public Information’s Division of Pictorial Publicity oversaw the publication of hundreds of patriotic posters and, together with other government and voluntary agencies, produced millions of copies of thousands of posters. None were more important to the war effort than those in support of the Liberty Loans. In four great wartime bond drives (a fifth “Victory” loan followed the Armistice), the United States raised billions of dollars towards the enormous cost of the war. In addition, war savings stamps were sold in small denominations between the gigantic Liberty Loan bond campaigns to raise even more money and “smooth out” the flow of funds to the treasury. Mme. Touissant Welcome’s Charge of the Colored Divisions first was enlisted as a War Savings Stamp Committee poster in the summer of 1918 after the third Liberty Loan drive ended. In the fall, the image was used again (“4th Liberty Loan. October, 1918” is penciled at the foot of the page) in support of the largest and most successful campaign. Even though the country was in the midst of a deadly influenza pandemic, prohibiting many of the public activities associated with the loan drives, twenty-two million Americans oversubscribed the Fourth Liberty Loan and pledged almost $7 billion. Jennie Louise Touissant Welcome and the men of the “old 15th” had truly “done their bit.”
Keene, Jennifer. “Images of Racial Pride: African American Propaganda Posters in the First World War.” In Picture This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009, 207-240.
“Mme. E. Touissant Welcome” is described as “The Foremost Female Artist of the Race” in a full-page advertisement for the Touissant Conservatory of Art and Music in The Crisis, Vol. 1, No. 1 (November 1910).
Olin, Margaret. Touching Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
While her focus is on James VanDerZee’s photography, Margaret Olin provides many of the best clues about the rather obscure careers of Jennie and Ernest Touissant Welcome.
Rawls, Walton. Wake Up, America! World War I and the American Poster. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.
Sammons, Jeffrey T. Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: the Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2014.
Williams, Chad L. Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Wright, Brewster Garnet. “World War I As I Saw It: The Memoir of an African American Soldier.” Ed. by Tracey Lovette Spencer and James E. Spencer, Jr. In Massachusetts Historical Review. Vol. 9 (2007). Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007, 135-165.