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Georgia communities honor black American veterans who died during WWI

Woman holding US flag. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Most were buck privates who succumbed to infections or pneumonia. Some are buried in France. All 21 were African American troops from Laurens County who died in uniform during World War I or soon after it ended.

They are among the 43 veterans of the Great War on a new courthouse plaque in Dublin that will be featured at an upcoming ceremony. It replaces a United Daughters of the Confederacy plaque from 1921 that listed only white troops.

Many blacks who died during the war were not publicly recognized in segregated America after the fighting ended and as the nation endured deadly race riots and lynchings during the “Red Summer” of 1919. Dublin and a few other Georgia communities have set out to correct that.

Local real estate attorney Scott Thompson Sr. and Keith Smith, the historian for Dublin’s American Legion Post 17, uncovered the names of the 21 black troops while digging through draft records, court files and death certificates.

“It was just the right thing to do,” said Thompson, a former U.S. Army Reservist and the former president of the Laurens County Historical Society.

Smith, an Army veteran, agreed: “If you put on the uniform and you signed, you are my brother and you are my sister.”

Prompted by the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, Dublin-area supporters raised about $5,000 in private donations for the replacement plaque and installed it on the original stone monument. Local officials are preparing to showcase it at a special event some time in the coming weeks.

Smith and Thompson were aided in their research by Lamar Veatch of Johns Creek, a former state librarian who volunteered with Georgia’s WWI Centennial Commission. Last year, Veatch completed a publicly searchable database of more than 4,000 troops from the Peach State who died during WWI or in the months after the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918. It includes nearly 1,300 African Americans.

Veatch spent two years inspecting death records and state archives. He traveled to every county in the state, searching for WWI monuments. Some have none. Some have memorials listing troops segregated by race. The lobby in the historic DeKalb County Courthouse, for example, features a plaque from 1928 with columns of WWI veteran names, one of them labeled “colored.”

About 380,000 African Americans served in the U.S. military during WWI, including about 200,000 who were sent to Europe, according to the National Archives. Though they were risking their lives for their country, they could not shake segregation. More than half of all black troops sent abroad were assigned to labor and stevedore battalions, where they built roads, bridges, and trenches. About 42,000 saw combat. Many fought bravely, including Sgt. Henry Johnson of Winston-Salem, N.C., who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015 for his heroism in combat.

More than a dozen black veterans were lynched in their uniforms in the South after they returned from the war, said John Morrow Jr., who teaches about the two world wars at the University of Georgia and who co-wrote a book about Johnson’s famed combat unit, the “Harlem Rattlers.” Morrow said Dublin’s new plaque “begins to set the records straight that these men served just as their white counterparts did, shed their blood, died for this country.”

Relying on Veatch’s research, Jefferson County, located southwest of Augusta, unveiled a new granite monument in May. Paid for with private donations, it sits outside the county courthouse in Louisville, honoring 26 troops — black and white — who died in uniform during the WWI era.

“It is important that we remember our history and our heritage,” said Jefferson Administrator Adam Brett.

On Memorial Day in 2016, Griffin, a city of about 23,000 residents south of Atlanta, showcased a new bronze plaque listing 12 African Americans from the area who died in uniform during the WWI era. Paid for with private donations, it also lists three white troops who were missed when the original plaque was installed.

Griffin Archivist Cindy Barton began her research after stumbling upon separate lists of white and black WWI veterans in the Spalding County courthouse. She confirmed the additional names while visiting nearby cemeteries and consulting multiple sources, including newspaper articles, draft records and death certificates.

“I’m not finished,” Barton said. “I still think there might be one or two out there that I missed. I am still researching pretty much all the time.”

Among the names of black troops on Griffin’s new plaque is Pfc. Penia Roberts of Concord. Drafted when he was 21, Roberts died of pneumonia in France on Dec. 30, 1918, less than two months after the armistice was signed. His gravestone is located at the church he once attended, Roberts Chapel United Methodist Church in Concord.

Susan Hines-Chaney, a great-great-niece who lives near the church, attended the ceremony for the new Griffin monument three years ago. Other relatives traveled from Tennessee and Ohio.

“After all those years, I feel like his spirit can rest now,” Hines-Chaney said. “It made me feel proud to know that he was honored. It doesn’t matter when or how, but if it is meant to be, it will happen. I’m thrilled that it happened.”


© 2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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