The War Canteen: Mutual Aid in Early 20th Century New London 

Between 1910 and 1950, both World Wars and the Great Migration reshaped and industrialized New London, Connecticut.  The city grew from a population of 17,000 in 1910 to 30,456 in 1940. Companies like Pratt and Whitney, Royal Typewriter, and Hartford Machine Screw created more high-paying laboring positions.  Positions at the Naval Base and Coast Guard became major employers while maintaining segregation among workers (Voogd, 95; Close 245). The growing population meant more jobs in other industries including the service industry, retail, domestic positions, offices, schools, and transportation. As the city adjusted to these changes, so did their provisioning of aid. Established charities, predominantly run by white women, struggled to address the issues that faced the laboring newcomers. Instead, many working-class Black women organized mutual aid programs that provided immediate relief for problems faced by poor Black New Londoners.

The War Canteen, established 1917, was a mutual aid organization organized primarily by Black women to support Black servicemen stationed in New London. Throughout World War I, the segregated military excluded Black servicemen from the federal provisions of goods and services afforded to their white counterparts. The War Canteen filled the gaps, providing quality food, lodging, clothes, laundry services, and access to recreation (Baker). One of the founders, Elizabeth Jeter Greene’s mission was not uncommon. In cities home to military bases, women’s war efforts often provided support to servicemen with goods and services. However, Greene’s vision differed from the traditional image of patriotic white women’s charity work. The working-class Black women engaged in political advocacy by providing for the unmet needs of marginalized people. Like many of her colleagues, Greene’s own experience as a migrant informed her ability to recognize issues and work within the community to create solutions. 

Greene, born 1890 in Arlington, Virginia, migrated to Connecticut in her midteens. Like many migrants, Greene and her mother Emma moved with the advice and information provided by familial connections and rumors of economic opportunity (Grossman, 67). By 1917, Greene had made a home in New London with her husband and daughter. It was at this time, outside of her day-to-day income-earning work as a dressmaker and taking care of her young daughter, that Greene established the War Canteen. Like many who engage in mutual aid work and direct service, Greene’s experience as a migrant informed her ability to make decisions and create practices that filled in the needs of the community. 

By 1918 the War Canteen reorganized in to the Negro Welfare on War Relief (NWWR). The NWWR collaborated with employers like the Naval Base to place newly migrated Black Southerners in vacant positions. However, owners and managers often objected to intermixing races. For example, the Naval Base separated living quarters by race (Voogd, 95). The U.S. Coast Guard employed Black men but barred their admission to the Coast Guard Academy until the 1960s, despite a history of Black service in the Revenue Cutters, which predated the Coast Guard (Close, 245). Consequently, Black servicemen’s status was in limbo, after serving in the military employers still largely denied them the freedoms of employment, safety, and equal conditions. The status of Black employment reflected the importance and challenges faced by the aid organizations as they sought to support Black economic mobility.

The creation of the War Canteen and the NWWR established a formal mutual aid framework that empowered all parts of New London’s Black community, especially women, as well as poor and working-class migrants. After the war, the group reorganized to better accommodate the community’s changing needs, but the emphasis on community leadership and mutual aid continued. The United Negro Welfare Council (UNWC) was established in 1924, adopting a more outwardly politicized messaging as a new generation of community members utilized Greene’s framework to continue advocating for better housing and community conditions, as well as a general expansion of citizenship. Sadie Harrison continued the work of Elizabeth Jeter Greene as the development of aid networks responded to the changing conditions of the city in the post-war era. 

For a more thorough story and resources on the War Canteen, Greene, and Mutual Aid history in New London please visit:  Taylor, Madison, “Meeting Unmet Needs: The Evolution of Housing and Aid in New London 1910-1950” (2022).

Baker, Mary Beth. “New London Landmarks Memo.” New London Landmarks Inc. November 18, 2019.

Close, Stacey. “Connecticut and the Aftermath of the Civil War.” In African American Connecticut Explored, edited by Elizabeth Normen, 190-225. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013.

Grossman, James. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

US Decennial Census. “New London County by Race.” Years 1900 – 1950. Social Explorer. Accessed. February 8, 2022.

Voogd, Jan. Race Riots, and Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008.