When Robert Simmons, an African American man from Savannah, Georgia, was brought to the foggy, windswept island of Alcatraz in the winter of 1918, he was thrown into the “hole,” a pitch-dark dungeon cell with slimy walls, crawling with rats. He was held there for 14 days.
Simmons was a Conscientious Objector (CO) who opposed war and refused to fight on the battlefields of World War I.
When World War I began in Europe on July 28, 1914, a great debate unfolded in the United States as to whether the U.S. should enter the war. President Woodrow Wilson finally decided to declare war on April 6, 1917 – but the country was still divided. Many political, labor and religious organizations opposed the war and urged their members not to fight. In response, the government passed laws that forced conscription, criminalized dissent and jailed many who took anti-war positions.
There was great unrest in the African American community at the time of Wilson’s declaration of war. Jim Crow laws condemned Blacks to the poorest conditions in cities and rural areas alike. The U.S. Supreme court ruled that segregation was the law of the land. The rise of white vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized Black communities, burning churches and homes and lynching thousands.