As President Woodrow Wilson in August of 1917 declared war on Germany saying, “The world must be made safe for democracy,” the United States would enter the war in Europe. That statement would particularly resonate at home to America’s African American citizenship, where the basic ideals of Democracy where all citizens can equally enjoy social, economic, educational and political freedoms seemed unfulfilled.
During the war years, Newport, Rhode Island was a bustling Navy town with a large compliment of Army personnel station at Fort Adams. By 1917, Newport had become what locals described as a “garrison town” with thousands of Navy and Army personnel station in the small New England city. Newport was also home to a sizable African American community whose historic origins dated back to the 17th century.
In an August 3, 1917 edition of the Newport Mercury Newspaper, Reverend William J. Lucas, Pastor of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church posted a direct plea to Newport’s people of color to avoid trouble in public places, particularly with the large number of military personnel within the city. Reverend Lucas provides very specific instructions for members of the African American community, particularly African American women, that includes a self-imposed curfew to protect against personal violence that may lead to larger scale riots. These were dangerous times for people of color, and as often happens, women were particularly vulnerable. Some of the most devastating race riots in American history were taking place in major cities across the country, culminating during the summer of 1919, a time that historians today refer to as the “Red Summer.”
Reverend Lucas of Newport took a bold and important action to warn and prepare his community during a time of great local, national and world-wide strife. Fortunately, Newport was able to avoid the race riots that plagued other parts of the country. Newport like many communities across America was very fortunate to have the vision, leadership and organization of black churches like Union Congregational, Mt. Shiloh Baptist, Mt. Zion AME and Reverend Lucas and the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church to provide the constant voice of preparation, self-determination and most importantly during those turbulent times, self-preservation.