A Conflicted Harmony
Central Massachusetts has been a predominantly white, agrarian society for most of America’s history of European settlement. As America prepared for World War I, the U.S. Army looked to set up temporary camps in 1917 to enlist, train, and deploy soldiers. The army chose a piece of scrub grassland with small trees along the Nashua River in Central Massachusetts as the site for what would eventually become Camp Devens. Due to its close proximity to the railways in Ayer, the army saw this area as an ideal location.
In a matter of ten weeks, the small town of Ayer, with approximately 2,500 people, mostly white, became a center of people of many different national origins and races. People of different European descent, including German POWs, and people of other races descended upon Central Massachusetts and created a diverse environment on a 5,000 square mile piece of land while the surrounding communities maintained their homogenous society. The people of America appear to have united together during World War I and created what seemed to be a more harmonious racial environment on the surface. By looking at Camp Devens we get a glimpse into how America came together and prepared for World War I. Its story touches many towns in Massachusetts and the South as the 366th Regiment, an African-American unit, was stationed at Camp Devens. The story of Camp Devens shows how diverse groups came together and worked for a common cause but it also shows that despite the new opportunities for all groups, racial tensions still existed. Within these racial contexts that white American perceptions of African-Americans during World War I fueled the fight for civil rights movements within the military, and within Devens itself, during World War II. (For more on the Pre-war Years and the Building of Camp Devens, view this blog.)