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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 23

African American Heroes of WW1

Posted on December 23, 2019 at 2:00 PM by Jenny Levins

The Iredell County Public Library is holding a special program in connection with Memorial Day on Tuesday, May 21st, at 7 p.m. at the library in Statesville. The program, “African Americans Heroes of Iredell County in WWI” will focus on the African American men who fought and died during the America’s first world conflict. This free program will feature Iredell County educator and historian Phyllis Bailey and is sponsored by the Friends of the Iredell County Public Library. Families of African American men who served in WWI are encouraged to come and share their ancestor’s story. 

World War I created a social evolution in African American communities across the country and in Iredell County. African Americans in Iredell County in 1917 lived in the world of “Jim Crow” and were considered second class citizens. The phrase “Jim Crow” comes from the 1828 minstrel song “Jump Jim Crow” which was typically performed by clownish acting white men wearing black face make up. For an African American in Iredell County in 1917 “Jim Crow” referred to laws passed in the late 1890s and early 1900’s by white supremacists that created segregation and took away their human rights. A constitutional amendment passed in the general election of 1900 had disenfranchised the right to vote for black men and by 1904 African American voting was almost nonexistent in N.C.  

When the United States entered WWI on April 6, 1917 we had an army of only 126,000 men. 
To win the war a call went out for volunteers to build a one million man army. Within one week the quotas for African American soldiers had been met. Six weeks later though only 73,000 men total had volunteered. On May 18, 1917 the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed authorizing the United States federal government to raise a national army through conscription. African American men were drafted the same as the white men and would wear the same uniform though in segregated companies. These men would serve and fight for their country overseas the same as the white soldiers. They would also go to foreign countries like England, France, and Belgium where they were welcomed and treated as equals. African American men saw the war as an opportunity to win the respect of the world. In all 367,710 black Americans were drafted. 

The January 10, 1919 issue of The Landmark carried an interesting article titled, “Statesville Negro Remembered By Belgian”. The article reported that Frank Cornelius, a “colored” WWI veteran had received a card from I.A. Claeys, Ostend, Belgium, dated Dec. 6, 1919. The card was addressed to Mr. Cornelius, Frank, 340 Westend Avenue, Statesville, N.C., U.S.A., and read, “You see I held word to write to you. Neither what you are, you have been a brother in arms, fighting for the great sake on our side and a friend in need is a friend indeed. Like I told you I went home in Belgium, white I found everything robbed by the Banks, they didn’t left a spoon to eat and the parents want of all things. Never mind, with courage and God’s help, I hope to build up again what I loosed and to retake my place back in society, where I wonder now completely ruined. I can’t find word enough to thank the American people in particular for what they did for our folks at home, left starving.” The card closed with, “Your Belgium friend.” 

The 1919 version of Statesville’s paper seemed to find it a curiosity that this Belgian soldier had written a black man in Statesville. While African American soldiers had won the respect of the world they returned to a homeland where they were treated as inferior. The Germans were aware of how black Americans were treated in the U.S. and dropped flyers down to the black soldiers in the field with one asking, “Do you enjoy the same rights as the white people do in America the land of Freedom and Democracy?” This effort to destroy morale failed and on Feb. 18, 1919 The Landmark reported that Alice Paye of Statesville had received word that her brother Corporal Coite L. Grant had been awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. The paper later reported that Statesville’s Private Miner Belt “Old 15th New York Volunteers” regiment was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and were the first to reach the Rhine River in Germany. 

Research so far shows the names of nine African American men connected to Iredell County who died as a result of service in World War I though they may be others. They are Anderson Levi Ader, Luke ((Luther Carson) Dalton, Fred Frank Davidson, James A. Gamble, Monroe Moore, Ernest Morgan, William Murray, George Sharpe, and John Torrence. There were probably men who died later from injuries and wounds received during the war. The Sept. 1, 1933 issue of The Landmark reported that, “James Gamble, colored, ex-serviceman, 40 years of age, died Tuesday night at his home in Rabbit Town. He had been ill for some time, suffering from the effects of being gassed while serving overseas during the world war”. 

The Great War had changed the world, but in the U.S. black soldiers returned to the same segregated society they had left.  While the war did not change social conditions in the U.S. the African American veterans and the communities they came from were changed. These men had seen England, France, Belgium, and others parts of the world where they were judged as men and not by the color of their skin. They had experienced being treated as equals by the European soldiers they served with and had earned their respect. The United States was not the whole world. The German taunts about Freedom and Democracy were not heeded on the battlefield, but they would not have been forgotten. 

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library

For the Statesville Record and Landmark 
June 5, 2019