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.

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Tales from the East End: A sketch of the life of Valentine Griffin (ca. 1820-1894), Richmond, Virginia

This post also appears on African American Cemeteries of Richmond Virginia

The scourge of writer’s block was an unwelcome visitor this week, and thumbing through newspaper archives seemed the only remedy for sheer frustration. However, an interesting obituary in the Richmond Planet caught my attention. It featured a brief summary of the life of Mr. Valentine Griffin, an aged and much respected figure in Richmond’s African American community, who passed away on March 16, 1894.

Died at his residence, 1222 Buchanan St., Friday morning, March 16, 1894, in the seventy-fourth year of his age, Mr. Valentine Griffin. Deceased was born of free parentage in Charles City County, Va., worked as hireling until he became twenty one years of age. He removed to the County of Henrico, and there remained until the beginning of the Civil War. He was pressed into the service of the Confederates in the year of 1862, and placed upon the breast works. Near the close of the year 1863, he left the Confederates and went to the Union Army, and was placed in charge of the Commissary, where he remained until the close of the war.

He was with the Sherman Division in the far South, and it was some time after the surrender before he returned.

In 1866 he removed to his late residence in this city.

He was a member of the church for forty nine years; was a member of the Fidelity Division, Sons of Temperance for twenty years; was a member of the Rising Sons of Zion for thirty eight years, and the Daughters of Messiah for twenty nine years. In all these he was a faithful member.

All who knew him loved him, and he continually added to his host of friends. The principles of honesty, integrity, and sobriety, which were inculcated in childhood, and which are peculiar to and characteristic of himself, grew stronger as he grew to manhood; but in his declining years when nature began to fail him, they remained undaunted and the same; even imperishable shall they live. When he shall have mouldered away in forgotten dust, the philanthropist of ancient or modern times could not have left a richer legacy than he, ever had they their million extended from generation to generation. In tears of regret we leave Valentine Griffin to sleep the sleep of a peaceful citizen and a devout Christian and gentlemen.

Richmond Planet, April 7, 1894

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Memorials to United States Colored Troops, Pt. 6 – Richmond, Virginia

Memorials to United States Colored Troops

A photo-essay series dedicated to the United States Colored Troops, and how they were remembered in contemporary news media

Pt. 6

Richmond, Virginia

East End Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond National Cemetery

William I. Johnson, Sr. – East End Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. Photo, New Journal and Guide, 1938

William I. Johnson, Sr.

W. I. Johnson, Sr., Pioneer, Buried With Honors Here – Funeral services for W. I. Johnson, Sr., pioneer citizen of Richmond, a former slave who became a prominent member of one of Richmond’s most highly respected families, were held here Wednesday of this week in First African Baptist Church, with Dr. W. T. Johnson, pastor in charge. Interment was in Evergreen Cemetery.

Mr. Johnson, a reputedly self-made man, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, February 14, 1840, and had attained the ripe age of 97, when he folded his arms in that sleep from which none ever wakes to weep.

Was pioneer Contractor

Mr. Johnson was one of the pioneers in the business world, having entered the contracting business during the dark and stormy days of reconstruction remaining active therein until a few years ago when he retired from active service because of injuries suffered in an accident.

Born and reared in slavery, Mr. Johnson saw his first experience on the battlefield as a body servant to his then “master.” Later, however, being a man of courage and initiative, he managed from the Confederate side to the Federal side when he escaped to a Yankee camp where he later served in the quartermaster corps of the Federal army. He took part in the bloody battles around Petersburg, Fort Harrison, Seven Pines, Danville and the famous battle of Manassas and was mustered out of the Federal service in Washington, in October, 1865.

Mr. Johnson has been an active member of the First African Baptist Church for 67 years; the Samaritans 65 years; Odd Fellows, 58 years; Masons, 58 years; Saint Lukes, 63 years and the National Ideals for sixteen years.

Buried With Masonic Rites

Full Mason honors were accorded this distinguished citizen as his funeral was conducted from First Baptist Church Wednesday at 2 p.m.

Mr. Johnson is survived by four daughters, Mrs. Ella Carrington, Mrs. Mamie Coleman, Mrs. Lavinia A. Banks, Mrs. Alice Johnson, and one son, W. I. Johnson, Jr. He is also survived by fourteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. — The Richmond Planet

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Richmond, Virginia: A sketch of the life of Valentine Griffin (1820-1894)

The scourge of writer’s block was an unwelcome visitor this week, and thumbing through newspaper archives seemed the only remedy for sheer frustration. However, an interesting obituary in the Richmond Planet caught my attention. It featured a brief summary of the life of Mr. Valentine Griffin, an aged and much respected figure in Richmond’s African American community, who passed on March 16, 1894.

Died at his residence, 1222 Buchanan St., Friday morning, March 16, 1894, in the seventy-fourth year of his age, Mr. Valentine Griffin.

Deceased was born of free parentage in Charles City County, Va., worked as hireling until he became twenty one years of age. He removed to the County of Henrico, and there remained until the beginning of the Civil War. He was pressed into the service of the Confederates in the year of 1862, and placed upon the breast works. Near the close of the year 1863, he left the Confederates and went to the Union Army, and was placed in charge of the Commissary, where he remained until the close of the war.

He was with the Sherman Division in the far South, and it was some time after the surrender before he returned.

In 1866 he removed to his late residence in this city.

He was a member of the church for forty nine years; was a member of the Fidelity Division, Sons of Temperance for twenty years; was a member of the Rising Sons of Zion for thirty eight years, and the Daughters of Messiah for twenty nine years. In all these he was a faithful member.

All who knew him loved him, and he continually added to his host of friends. The principles of honesty, integrity, and sobriety, which were inculcated in childhood, and which are peculiar to and characteristic of himself, grew stronger as he grew to manhood; but in his declining years when nature began to fail him, they remained undaunted and the same; even imperishable shall they live. When he shall have mouldered away in forgotten dust, the philanthropist of ancient or modern times could not have left a richer legacy than he, ever had they their million extended from generation to generation. In tears of regret we leave Valentine Griffin to sleep the sleep of a peaceful citizen and a devout Christian and gentlemen.

Richmond Planet, April 7, 1894

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