The organization was a response to the Chapultepec Treason Trials, when Mexican President Victoriano Consalus had over 8,000 Negro slaves arrested and tried en masse for treason for joining an invading French army during the Hundred Day War. Although Washburne was considering a run for Governor-General in the upcoming 1918 Grand Council elections, he decided that opposition to the treason trials was more important, and in January 1915 he released a public statement demanding that the slaves be released.
Having gone so far, the following month, on Wednesday, 10 February 1915, Washburne made a speech (almost certainly carried live on the radio, although Sobel does not say so) calling for the abolition of slavery in the U.S.M. "Our brothers are in chains," he said, "and their cries never leave our ears. We can no longer tolerate it. Either Mexico will end slavery, or we will do it for her."
Governor-General Albert Merriman sent an apology to President Consalus four days later, but by then thirty-four members of the Grand Council had signed a petition supporting Washburne, and millions of people across the C.N.A. had rallied behind him. By 17 February a national organization called the Friends of Black Mexico had been formed, and Washburne had resigned as governor to lead it.
As the F.B.M. held rallies across the C.N.A., Merriman and Consalus worked to avoid war between their countries. The Liberal Party caucus in the Grand Council took up Washburne's cause, and considered naming him as their candidate for Governor-General in 1918. However, by late in 1915 the agitation had begun to die down. The actual treason trials were held behind closed doors, and apparently no news of their deliberations made it into the press.
The calm ended on 20 December, when Judge Homer Mattfield of the Mexico Tribunal announced that a final verdict would be handed down in sixteen days, on 5 January 1916. Crowds began to gather around the Federal Prison in Chapultepec on Thursday the 30th of December. Although many were there to celebrate New Year's Eve, most had come to hold a silent vigil in support of the imprisoned slaves. There were clashes between the two groups, and the authorities in Chapultepec called upon Mexico City to send troops to defend the city. The conflicts had died down by 3 January, and the extra troops were sent back to the capital. However, the Chapultepec police and a select unit of the District Guard remained on duty near the Federal Prison in case of future disturbances.Just before dawn on Tuesday, the 4th of January, fires broke out in the Negro ghettos of Chapultepec, followed by riots. The police and the District Guards responded by rushing to quell the riots. Once they were gone from the Federal Prison, a force of over 2,000 young people stormed the prison, overpowered the guards, and forced open the doors. The prison guards fired on the mob, but were unable to stop them. Once inside, the mob freed the imprisoned slaves, who joined them in subduing the remaining guards. Once all the prisoners had been freed, the survivors fled the Federal Prison and made their way to the Negro ghettos, where they were able to blend in with the inhabitants. Casualties from the Chapultepec Incident included some 4,000 wounded, and 1,166 killed: 188 guards, 429 prisoners, and 549 attackers.
The Mexican army and a team of investigators quickly arrived on the scene, and the next day the investigators announced that some of the prison guards had cooperated with the attackers, and that at least 200 of the 549 dead "Mexican students" were actually North Americans. Consalus ordered the Mexican Army on the alert and the Navy out of ports. Anglo and Hispano areas of Mexico City began to arm themselves against a feared slave uprising and a possible invasion by the C.N.A.
However, Consalus and Merrimen were determined to prevent war from breaking out. They were in contact soon after the release of the investigators' report, and over the course of a series of telephone conversations on 5 and 6 January they arrived at an agreement. In a statement that was carefully worded to be firm, yet vaugue, Merriman announced that those North American citizens who had participated in the attack had done so "without the knowledge of this government and certainly without its sanction. Measures will be taken at once to ensure that further incidents involving C.N.A. citizens in Chapultepec and other parts of the United States of Mexico will be prevented."
Over the next two weeks, the passports of 10,970 North Americans in the U.S.M. were revoked, and their holders were told by the Mexican government to leave the country within three days. Eventually 232 of them were arrested by the Confederation Bureau of Investigation for "actions injurious to the nation." 154 of those arrested were found to be directly or indirectly involved in the Chapultepec Incident and were sentenced to jail terms.
At the same time, Merriman's announcement resulted in protest rallies throughout the C.N.A., many organized and led by the F.B.M. Washburne himself addressed the rally in Burgoyne, promising to continue his "unceasing effort to bring freedom to our brothers in Mexico, to free not only the Negro, but the Mexicano and Indian as well." Washburne announced a boycott of all Kramer Associates products sold in the C.N.A., and twenty-four-hour vigils outside Mexican consulates. "We shall not rest until we reach the conscience of the Mexicans, and when we do, slavery and other evils of that benighted land will come to an end."
Sobel states that the vigils and boycott accomplished little in themselves, but that there was violence in the cities of the Northern Confederation, including Boston, Newport, New York City, and Philadelphia, as anti-F.B.M. forces clashed with the demonstrators. Other fights took place in Indiana, Northern Vandalia, and the Southern Confederation. These clashes made it clear that racism in the C.N.A. had not been eliminated, but simply hidden, as Negroes and whites had little contact with each other. As Wilton Harmaker put it in The Genesis of Twentieth Century North America, "North America resolved its racial problems by denying contact between the races. If the Wilkins area of Michigan City was the Negro section of that industrial complex, then Southern Vandalia was the Negro section of the entire nation."
Washburne was aware of the existence of the racial divide in the C.N.A., and he was determined to deal with it. On the night of 14 May 1920, at a mass meeting of the F.B.M. held to celebrate passage of the Manumission Act by the Mexican Congress, he announced "the beginning of a new crusade, one to remake the face of our own land. Like the ending of slavery in Mexico, this too has been long overdue. The F.B.M. is dead, felled by its own success. Now the fight for democracy will be spearheaded by a new organization, the League for Brotherhood, which will welcome support from all men of good will, whatever their race or station in life." Washburne concluded by saying, "The fight for manumission in Mexico has taken four years. This new struggle will take more than four times four years. We may not see its end, just as Moses did not enter the promised land. But the path is open. The way is clear. We shall prevail."
Sobel's sources for the Friends of Black Mexico are James Chester's Washburne of the C.N.A. (London, 1928); Harold Walker's The Chapultapec Affair: Doorway to Today (New York, 1958) and Black Lloyed: The Life of Howard Washburne (New York, 1970); Montgomery Farmer's Making a New World (New York, 1966); Clyde Herman's The Gathering Storm: The End of U.S.M. Slavery (New York, 1967); and Harmaker's The Genesis of Twentieth Century North America (Burgoyne, 1970).