In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans

On Sunday, November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the technical end of World War I, was observed by our nation and many countries throughout the world. As with other major historical events, I viewed the day through the lens of a historian and genealogist. It can be quite an interesting enterprise; as a historian, you want to know all of the facts of an event, and as a genealogist, you’re eager to place your ancestors within the context of those events. 

Over the years, our family has located the grave sites of many of our ancestors that served in World War I. We’ve tracked them to historic African American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Richmond and Suffolk in Virginia, Buncombe, Franklin, Henderson, Hertford, and Warren counties in North Carolina, and Knoxville National Cemetery in Tennessee.

At times, whether simply visiting their gravesites, or planting flags, I’d find myself staring down at the stones, and wondering what their WWI experience was like. Sure, I could review the details of the various battles and engagements in books, or read first-person accounts from some of the more famous veterans, but those sources wouldn’t tell me what my ancestors thought, nor how they felt about the war.

That’s why I was so excited to learn about the WWI History Commission questionnaires, many of which have been or are currently being digitized by local and state libraries. A historical window into the minds and memories of long-deceased ancestors? Perfect!

Colored Soldiers Attention – The Virginia War History Commission has decided to place record of the achievements of the colored soldiers from Virginia in the World War in the volumes with the record of the white soldiers, for this purpose of Board of Negro Collaborators has been appointed to collect this data. Headquarters have been established at the Mechanics Savings Bank building and all persons knowing of persons, who distinguished themselves abroad will send their names and addresses to Prof. T. C. Erwin, Secretary, Mechanics Savings Bank Building, Richmond, Va. As there is but a limited time to secure this information all persons are urged to act at once. It will be very unfortunate if this history should be published and the colored troops not recognized in the compilation due to negligence or failure to send in the information. Questionnaires may be obtained for the asking by sending for the same as indicated. Write at once and help this worthy cause.

The Richmond Planet, Saturday, April 24, 1920

During a two-day visit to the Library of Virginia, I eagerly reviewed reels of microfilm, looking for any applications that our ancestors submitted to the commission. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any at all, and felt the familiar feeling of smacking into another genealogy “brick wall.” However, amidst my disappointment, I noticed something else; some of the veterans had chosen to fill out their applications thoroughly, supplying detailed answers to questions about their views on religion, the war, and (if relevant) their combat experience. I paid close attention to applications submitted by veterans that lived in the same neighborhoods as my ancestors, and have included a small portion of them here.

Richmond, Virginia

Pvt. Otis P. Robinson (1890-1918) – Company B, 545 Engrs

Original gravesite of Pvt. Otis P. Robinson, American Cemetery, St. Nazaire, France, 1918. Library of Virginia

Otis Purcell Robinson was born on March 2, 1890 in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of William T. Robinson and Victoria Edmonds, who are both interred in Evergreen Cemetery. He was the brother of Carrie Gustava Robinson Harris Gladden (1880-1948), William Bernard Robinson (ca.1884), Oscar C. Robinson, and Julian Merchant Robinson (ca. 1889).

Prior to World War I, Pvt. Robinson worked as a porter, and general laborer with the British American Tobacco Company (est. 1902). He was a member of Sharon Baptist Church. He enlisted on June 5, 1917, and left for Europe on September 23, 1918 aboard the Rijndam, a Dutch-owned vessel built in Ireland in 1901, acquired by the U. S. Navy for troop transport on May 1, 1918. 

Sometime during the voyage to Europe, Otis P. Robinson contracted pneumonia, and died on October 15, 1918. He was originally interred on October 19, 1918, in grave 326, plot K, square #1 of the American Cemetery, located in St. Nazaire, France. He was disinterred on November 7, 1921, and re-interred in Richmond National Cemetery, Virginia, in February, 1922.

Grave of Pvt. Otis Purcell Robinson, Richmond National Cemetery. Source: Ancestry.com

From his last letter to sister Carrie:

“Dear Sister, pray for me, or pray to God in heaven, is better than anything else I know; pray God Bless you and be with you, until we meet again. From your devoted brother Otis P. Robinson – Camp Humphreys Va. 545 Co. Engrs.”

Pvt.Robinson’s 1920 questionnaire was filled out by his sister, Carrie. In it, she included the following words:

“My star of hope — I looked from out my window and in the sky afar a tiny ship a anchor, There shone a golden star. Tis a lamp set in his window, a light unto my feet, Both he, and I are waiting until we two shall meet; It beams before my vision, It sooths my weary brains; It gives me peace in sadness and banishes the pain; My star of hope so precious I call this Golden Star; It shineth in my (unreadable); my loved one lost in War; devoted sister Carrie G. Harris.”

Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. (1899-1963) – Pvt., Student Army Training Corps, Virginia Union University 

A. Lincoln Harris, Jr., The Crisis (1922)

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr., regarded as the first nationally recognized African American economist, was born on January 17, 1899, Richmond, Virginia, to Abram Lincoln Harris, Sr. and Mary E. Lee , who are interred in East End Cemetery. He was the brother of Edna Celeste Harris Johnson, Cyril David Harris (1908-1909), Miriam Harris Fisher, Collins Jonathan Harris, John Malcolm Harris (1907-1937), and Madelyn G. Harris. A Baptist in faith, he was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

His attitude towards military service:

“Prior to being inducted into the army I felt that any war fought to preserve the autonomy of weaker people should be supported by all liberty loving persons.”

On the effects of camp experience in the United States:

“Camp life such as I experienced was physically wholesome. I was more fit physically after discharge mentally, conditions were less favorable.”

Overall effect of war experience with his state of mind before the war:

“My actual experience had no effect upon my religious beliefs because I had no oversea experience. But the basic causes underlying the World War with its subsequent horrors and brutalities which are constantly referred to by eminent scholars some of whom had actual experience in the conflict force me to conclude that religion is inefficacious as a panacea for human social ills. Religionists have used the channels of public expression for the purpose of sowing the seeds of discord, racial and international hatred.

Still as a believer in the potency and effectiveness of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, my faith is unshaken. The solution of international problems is to be had only by the application of these teachings in social as well as individual life. Until now, hardly can any nation boast of having lived in accordance with the ideas of Christ. One nation is no more reprehensible than another.

In short, my knowledge of the recent war forces me to draw a hard line of demarcation between religion and Christianity, for surely ardent religious fervor was amply demonstrated on all sides during the recent crisis but the love of Jesus Christ was woefully lacking.”

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. Photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris passed away on November 15, 1963, and was interred in Montrose Cemetery, Chicago. His obituary in the November 18, 1963 edition of the Chicago Tribune described Dr. Harris as a “distinguished economist, social theorist, teacher, and writer.” On Dr. Harris’ legacy, the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote:

“Abram L. Harris, 64, formerly of Richmond,professor of economics at the University of Chicago, died Saturday in Chicago.

Dr. Harris, a Negro, headed the department of economics at Howard University at Howard University in Washington from 1936 to 1945. He also had been on the faculties of West Virginia State College and the College of the City of New York.

An authority on the problems of the Negro, he came to the University of Chicago in 1946. His books include “The Black Worker,” “The Negro as a Capitalist,: and “Ethics.”

Survivors include his wife, a brother, Jonathan Harris of Richmond, and a sister, Mrs. Madelyn H. Edmunds of Washington.”

The Richmond Times Dispatch, November 17, 1963

Norfolk, Virginia

PFC Floyd Bishop – Company B, 540 Engrs. Svc Bn.

Floyd Bishop was born on July 4, 1892, in Mapleton, Hertford County, North Carolina, to Richard Bishop (1838-1916), a farmer, and Margaret Gatling (ca. 1849-1937). He moved to Suffolk, Virginia by 1910, where he found work as a general laborer and later, as a cook with the Merchants and Miners Steamship Company. He enlisted at Norfolk, Virginia, on August 3, 1918, and departed from Hoboken, New Jersey for England aboard the USS Leviathan on October 27, 1918.

PFC Bishop arrived at Liverpool, England, on November 3, 1918. On his questionnaire, PFC Bishop noted that he wasn’t involved in any engagements, and was moved with other members of his company to various camps in France from November 11, 1918, to May 21, 1919. He departed from Marseille, France, on May 21, 1919 for Brooklyn, New York aboard the USS Brittania, arriving on June 6, 1919.

On the war, and its effects:

Before the war, I was passive as to the treatment of the common people colored, in particular, but since the war I am constantly reminded that my people (colored) are not getting any of the things that I served in the war to help bring about—democracy.

After the war, Floyd returned to his previous occupation, as a cook. He married Miss Estelle Rogers on January 21, 1932, at Norfolk, Virginia. The couple divorced a little over six years later.

PFC Floyd Bishop passed away on December 10, 1952. He rests in Calvary Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Portsmouth, Virginia

Pvt. Harvey Page (1888-1950) – 15th Company, 4th Bn., 155 Depot Brigade

Gravestone of Pvt. Harvey Page, Mount Olive Cemetery, October 11, 2010

Pvt. Harvey Page was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on April 9, 1888, to Charlie Page and Georgia Watkins. He was the husband of Emma Wilson, and affiliated with the Baptist church.

Pvt. Page enlisted on October 27, 1917, at Portsmouth, Virginia, and was stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia. Soon after arrival, he was transferred to Company B, 370th Infantry. He left for Europe aboard the USS Finland on April 30, 1918. 

USS Finland, ca. 1918. Source: navsource.org

In his questionnaire, Pvt. Page was somewhat apologetic in tone; he could not remember exact details and dates regarding his combat time. He did note that some of his engagements were centered around “fighting in the Argonne forest,” which most likely refers to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Pvt. Page left Brest, France on February 2, 1919, and arrived in New York City on February 9, 1919. He returned to his family in Portsmouth, Virginia, and continued his previous occupation as a general laborer. 

In his application, he noted that his combat experience during the war was “impossible to describe.”

Pvt. Harvey Page passed away on November 30, 1950, from complications of acute endocarditis. He was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery on December 10, 1950, by funeral director Edward A. Colden

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow – Company H, 369th Infantry, 93rd Division

New York’s famous 369th regiment arrives home from France. 
National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the War Department
Record Group 165
National Archives Identifier: 533548

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow, one of the infamous “Harlem Hellfighters,” was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on May 26, 1895, to William Snow and Etta Bass. Little is known about his early history in Tidewater, Virginia; he was a Baptist in faith, and worked as a shipfitter helper at the Norfolk Navy Yard. On August 18, 1916, he married Miss Willetta Fuller (1898-1944), daughter of George Washington Fuller, Sr. (1876-1923), and Mary L. Davis (1878-1946). By 1920, he was documented in Portsmouth’s Jefferson Ward, at 1010 Green Street, with wife Willetta, and George and Mary Fuller. Willetta Fuller Snow and her parents are all buried in Portsmouth’s Mount Olive Cemetery.

Gravestone of Willetta Fuller Snow, Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, est. 1879). Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2011. The visible damage to the right upper portion of her gravestone was caused by lawn maintenance.

According to military records, Ollie Lee Snow enlisted on October 27, 1917, at Camp Lee, Virginia. Stationed there through early December, 1917, he was transferred north to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he left for Europe aboard the USS Pocahontas, arriving in Brest, France on January 1, 1918. 

USS Pocahontas, ca. 1918. Source: navsource.org

In his questionnaire, Pvt. Snow’s responses were pretty straightforward. Despite the racism and discrimination that many African American veterans faced, he had a favorable view of his overall military service, and noted that camp life prior to combat was beneficial “physically and mentally.” He wrote that his overseas experience improved his health, and strengthened his religious beliefs. Regarding combat, he “felt he was doing the right thing in fighting for Uncle Sam.” He also provided relevant details of his combat experience, regarding his participation in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He noted that he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, on September 29, 1918, by Marshall Ferdinand Foch, for his conduct during the Battle of Snake Hill. 

Soon after submitting his questionnaire in the Spring of 1920, Pvt. Ollie and Willetta Snow relocated to New York, where he lived until his death on August 31, 1929. He was interred in Cypress Hills National Cemetery on September 7, 1929.  

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