The term “Gold Star Mother” first originated around 1918. Families with soldiers serving in World War I hung service flags with a blue star from their windows. When someone serving had died then the blue star would be replaced with a gold star, and in 1928 the Gold Star Mothers organization was founded. WWI, as the first truly large-scale overseas conflict the U.S. had fought, presented several problems for families whose loved ones died in the conflict. For starters, many of the American soldiers who gave their lives in the conflict did not have their bodies returned to the U.S. but were instead buried in Europe. This was a problem for many of the Gold Star mothers who wished to visit the graves of their sons but could not afford to travel to France. After much campaigning by Gold Star mothers and families, the government passed legislation sponsoring the trips of widows and mothers who wished to visit France to see the graves of their loved ones. Several trips in total were held between 1929 and 1933 that all told took over 6000 women overseas.
The government coordinated the logistics of the trips to provide for lodging, meals, and transportation, conducting talks with French hotels and even constructing new facilities when local towns were unable to accommodate the groups of widows and mothers. The women were taken to multiple WWI cemeteries during their trip and later afforded the chance to sight see around Paris before departing back home.
African Americans who served in the first World War suffered great discrimination in the armed forces, and sadly this persisted even into the ability for their family to visit their graves. While black gold star mothers and widows could take advantage of the government’s offer to visit France, the Hoover administration announced beforehand that the trips to France would be strictly segregated.
The backlash against this decision was both fierce and swift, with the N.A.A.C.P. spearheading much opposition. A petition by black gold star mothers to Hoover protesting the injustice of this policy fell on deaf ears. Hoover’s claim of separate but equal accommodations for the black women who made the trip swiftly unraveled, as the black gold star mothers were denied the use of the luxury liner used to transport the white mothers and widows; in its place was a far more cramped passenger liner. Black mothers were also not allowed to stay at the same hotels as white mothers either.
Despite the backlash, the government remained adamant in its policy. Many black mothers and widows were urged to boycott the pilgrimage because of the segregation policy and a number declined the opportunity, with one saying, “My going on such a pilgrimage would be an insult to my dead son who gave his life for his country’s cause.” Another mother echoed this sentiment and said that accepting the “Jim Crow invitation” would be an insult to her husband’s memory and sacrifice. The choice between protest at the government or making the trip was an agonized one, however, and several hundred eligible black mothers and widows still took up the government’s offer and according to one newspaper article were greeted by hundreds of cheering French when they landed.
Written by Christopher Russell
Budreau, Lisa. Gold Star Mothers. National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/honoring-our-gold-star-mothers
Potter, Constance. World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages. National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1999/summer/gold-star-mothers-1.html