Portsmouth, Virginia: Update on one of Portsmouth’s “Harlem Hellfighters”

Gravestone of Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow. Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Photo courtesy Find-a-Grave user Leslie W.

We’re pleased to report that we now have a photo of Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow’s headstone. It was taken by Find-a-Grave volunteer Leslie Wickham, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), and she graciously allowed me to use it.

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow, a Portsmouth, Virginia native, served during World War I. He was a member of the 369th Infantry, 93rd Division, the famed “Harlem Hellfighters.” He was featured in an earlier blog from last year, “In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans,” in recognition of Veterans Day. At the time, Pvt. Snow wasn’t listed in the Find-a-Grave database for Cypress Hills National, so I added the listing, and sent a photo request. Leslie fulfilled the request just a few weeks later. Thanks so much, Leslie!

The blog features the first person testimony of African American veterans from Richmond, Norfolk, and Portsmouth, courtesy of the WWI History Commission questionnaires that have been recently digitized. Pvt. Snow’s story is featured below. Also, be sure to view the video at the end; it’s exciting to know that Pvt. Snow was one of the men marching in the victory parade.

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 George Washington Fuller, father of Willetta Fuller Snow. Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2011. All rights reserved.
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.  (Note: All members of the regiment received the honor).

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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