Many of the soldiers who responded to the Virginia War History Commission’s questionnaire sent to World War I veterans kept their inner-most thoughts to themselves or at the very least were extremely circumspect in their responses.
Not James Preston Spencer.
Born in Charlotte Court House, Spencer couldn’t have put it much more plainly than he did in answering the question: “What was your attitude toward military service in general and toward your call in particular?”
“I felt that it was my patriotic duty to serve my country at the most critical hour in the nation’s history,” he wrote, “though my Race had not been given its proper rights.”
As a black soldier who served in World War I, Spencer knew first-hand the hollowness of President Woodrow Wilson’s vow to make the world “safe for democracy,” while at home, before and after the war, blacks were treated as second-class citizens.
More than 350,000 African-Americans served in World War I, according to numbers I’ve seen, many of them believing – hoping – that by doing the right thing and serving their country that America would do right by them. By and large, it didn’t.
“Most of them had some sense this was going to change things,” said Dale Neighbors, visual studies coordinator at the Library of Virginia and curator of a new exhibition that opens Tuesday, “True Sons of Freedom.” The photographic exhibition explores the stories of Virginia’s African-American soldiers who served during WWI.
“They thought, if you went off … and proved your worth and served your country it would be really difficult for the country not to recognize that.”
But that’s not how things turned out.
The exhibition, which will be on display through November (coinciding with the centennial of the end of what now is sometimes referred to as “the forgotten war”), highlights 20 African-American soldiers from Virginia with life-size reproductions of original postcard-sized photographs submitted by the soldiers with their questionnaires. The photos are accompanied by brief biographies of each soldier, based on their questionnaires and other information library researchers have been able to cobble together.
In addition, the library has constructed a website (www.virginiamemory.com/truesons) that will go live in the coming days that will allow viewers to see all of the 140 or so photographs submitted by black soldiers to the Virginia War Commission. The idea is to not only provide a glimpse into the world of those soldiers during WWI but also to connect with descendants of the soldiers who might not have seen these photos and who also might be able to add comments and information about the soldiers for future historians.
The title of the exhibit, “True Sons of Freedom,” comes from a 1918 lithograph by Charles Gustrine showing African-American soldiers fighting German soldiers during the war, an American flag waving and an image of Abraham Lincoln overlooking the scene, accompanied by his words, “Liberty and freedom shall not perish.”
The impetus for the project came from a desire by the library staff to put together an exhibit related to WWI. When they came across the photos of the black soldiers, Neighbors said they thought, “This is really unusual and a real opportunity to highlight that part of the war and then tell a bigger story as well.”
“We’re not trying to tell the whole history of the war or the African-American experience but hopefully touch on a lot of different topics in a very personal way through these soldiers lives,” he said.
Neighbors suspects some of the photos have been lost through the generations and some families might have no idea they exist, which is why he’s hoping the exhibit serves to reunite them.
The photos in the exhibit are striking in that you can look the subjects in the eye and study their body language and see confidence, uncertainty, pride, awkwardness, dignity – pretty much any emotion and demeanor you can imagine in young men about to go off to war. Few of the photos were dated, Neighbors said, but the assumption is that most were made by professional photographers at camps before their deployment.
“The more I look at them, the more compelling they are and the more I see in them and the more I want to know about them,” said Barbara Batson, the library’s exhibitions coordinator. “Some of these guys sort of disappeared, and we don’t know what happened to them.”
The soldiers highlighted in the exhibit come from all corners of the commonwealth, though mostly from rural areas, and most worked as farmers or laborers before the war. Neighbors recalled coming across a blacksmith from Hopewell and a miner who died in a mining accident soon after the war, among other occupations.
Some of the photos reflect the ill-fitting uniforms provided to the black soldiers, some of whom also experienced poor food, poor housing in camps and segregated units.
“It was not at all an equal experience for them,” Neighbors said. “Jim Crow followed them to Europe.”
Few expressed their true feelings about their experiences on the questionnaires beyond commenting that the experience made them stronger or broadened their views of the world. “Didn’t think much of it,” wrote Charlie Stratton of Accomack.
Spencer was an exception. He wrote that his experience made him “mentally more alert to political (and) social problems of the day.” After the war, he earned college degrees and spent his career in education and later served as a principal in Chesterfield County schools.
Most of the photographs show soldiers standing stiffly. A few are seated more casually. Several are holding rifles. For one, a “Camp Lee” pennant is a prop. One photo in the exhibit shows a soldier with his wife – Lewis Washington and his wife, Maggie, of Gloucester.
In an era when studio-made photographs were not as ever-present in many homes, the photos surely must have been prized possessions for some. One photo seems to indicate that. The tattered picture of William Allen Manson, who grew up in Warfield, in Brunswick County, before moving to Baltimore, was sewn together with thread, showing a distinct “love and care,” Neighbors said.
“Someone lovingly stitched it back together by hand,” Neighbors said, noting the repair clearly shows the thinking behind it: “It ‘s torn, and I’m going to repair it the best way I can because it’s important to me.”