Black History Month theme highlights African Americans in wartime
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) announced the theme for Black History Month 2018 is “Africans American in Times of War” commemorating the centennial of the end of the First World War in 1918 and honoring African American war veterans.
“Times of War inevitably provide the framework for many stories related to African American soldiers and sailors, veterans, and civilians,” ASALH said in a statement. “This is a theme filled with paradoxes of valor and defeat, of civil rights opportunities and setbacks, of struggles abroad and at home, of artistic creativity and repression, and of catastrophic loss of life and the righteous hope for peace.”
African Americans have participated in every American war from from the Revolutionary War Era to that of the present “War against Terrorism.” Black servicemen and women also faced adversity in the armed forces. Troops were segregated in America until 1948 when President Harry S. Truman signed a executive order to desegregate the military.
Black military troops throughout history include the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment during the Indian Wars, the 369th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”) during the First World War and the Montford Point Marines and Tuskegee Airmen during World War II
“The theme suggests that contemporary conditions, past and present, give us cause for critical pause in our studies and deliberations to consider the specific and unique issues faced by African Americans in times of war,” said ASALH.
ASALH was founded in 1915 by Woodson. Under his leadership, the organization presented the first African-American History Celebration in 1926. The organization focuses on a specific theme each year.
The Harlem Hellfighters: African-American WWI heroes
In the World War I era, Jim Crow segregation laws were prominent throughout the United States in all segments of society, as well as during physical combat overseas. Approximately 380,000 African-Americans served military duty then, gaining prominent status on the very vulnerable front lines.
Despite overt racism in their own country, the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, fought alongside Caucasian Frenchmen in the trenches, some even wearing French uniforms.
They wound up spending 191 consecutive days in combat (longer than any other American unit). They could proudly boast that they “never had a prisoner of war captured by the enemy during battle,” revealed Chancellor of Information Lord Graceful Malik Allah. “The Harlem Hellfighters was one of the most decorated units in military history, Black or white.”
Initially shipped to France in December 1917, “They were supposed to stay on the side-lines, but they wound up on front-street once General John Pershing assigned them to the 16th Division of the French army,” Allah explained. The 369th unit was very resilient and “one of the most feared, respected and decorated Allied units,” he added.
During combat, the Germans had nicknamed them the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and being that more than 70 percent of them originated from Harlem, it was very appropriate. Their French allies referred to them as the “Men of Bronze.”
While in France, James Reese Europe led the 369th Infantry Jazz Band to raise the soldiers’ morale while they endured the casualties of war. The rhythmic hymns enchanted soldiers.
Upon returning to Harlem in February 1919 at the conclusion of the Great War, Reese stated, “I have come from France more firmly convinced than ever that [Blacks] should write [Black] music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy [Caucasians] we will make bad copies. We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines.”
The Harlem Hellfighters helped popularize jazz in Europe and introduced big band and ragtime to the world.
After the war, The Hellfighters Jazz Band performed at their victory parade along NYC’s Fifth Avenue in front of more than a million people. Although they were well received, the torrid “Red Summer” of 1919 saw numerous anti-Black riots erupt in 26 different cities across America. The band’s sounds helped to quell things a bit.
In 2014, Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Henry Johnson received the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War I. In 2015, fellow Hellfighter William Henry Johnson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor. During the White House ceremony President Barack Obama stated, “The least we can do is to say we know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.”
Salaria Kea, a Black nurse in the Spanish Civil War
To balance our last classroom featuring Salaria Kea, an African-American nurse who volunteered in the fight against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, we profile the adventurous life of Oliver Law. Like Kea, Law was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and like her he was among the Black Americans who supported Ethiopia in its battle against the Italian invasion of that African nation.
Law was born in west Texas on Oct. 23, 1900. He was 19 when he joined the U.S. Army and served as a private in the 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-Black unit stationed on the Mexican border. He was in the military for six years. After being discharged from service, he moved to Indiana, where he worked in a cement plant.
He arrived in Chicago as the Great Depression was gradually sweeping the land. He drove a taxi before finding work on the city’s waterfront as a stevedore. In this capacity, he became a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association.
After his small restaurant failed, he joined the federal Works Project Administration, and his versatility was needed in a number of jobs. Law was among a coterie of activists of this era who marched in defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine youths accused of raping two white women. This commitment put him in close association with other passionate activists, and soon he was a member of International Labor Defense and assisting people who had been evicted from their homes. These activities were connected to his affiliation with the Organization of the International Unemployment Day and its demonstration on March 6, 1930. During the demonstration, Law, Joe Dallet, Steve Nelson and 11 other activists were arrested and badly beaten by the police. Two weeks after the beatings, Law had recovered sufficiently to march with 75,000 demonstrators to demand unemployment insurance. In 1932, he joined the Communist Party.
Law was arrested in 1935 for his fiery speeches in support of Ethiopia, which was at war with Italy. It was through this involvement that he met Kea and a prominent Black Communist, Harry Haywood.
By 1936, Law was married to Corrine Lightfoot, whose brother, Clause, was a prominent leader in the Communist Party. At the end of the year, he was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and by the turn of the year, he was on his way to Spain to join the fight there against the nationalists and their leader, Francisco Franco.
Law’s first assignment was with a machine gun unit, where his military experience immediately elevated him to a leadership position. His leadership was tested again and again during the battle at Jarama River. He was such a seasoned fighter that he was soon put in command of the entire Brigade. Some controversy arose over his leadership performance after an attack on Villanueva de la Canada. Still, he received a citation for his bravery under fire.
Law’s overall ability on the field of battle was highly commended, and the battalion commander recommended that he attend officer’s candidacy school. When the commander of the battalion became ill, Law was chosen to replace him. In the Battle of Brunete, Law was in charge during the first days of combat. Brunete was a major battle, and the 80,000 Republican soldiers were formidable until Franco sent in his reserves.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade and its allies suffered tremendous losses, and Law was killed on July 10 leading his men in an attack on Mosquito Crest, although this information has been contested. According to some eyewitnesses, Law was an incompetent office whose lack of leadership skills was responsible for some of the deaths. There is also an account that says Law was actually killed by his own men. Was there racism in the ranks of the Brigade? Were there white members who detested Law’s experience and military background? We recall how Kea, a nurse, was treated on her trip to Spain when a white medical officer refused to let her sit at the same dining table as the other medical personnel.
After the war, an anti-Communist, William Herrick, claimed that Law had been murdered by his own men, who objected to being led by a Black man, according to an article by the Spartacus Educational website. This claim has been dismissed by Harry Fisher, the battalion runner, who took part in the offensive: “He was the first man over the top. He was in the furthest position when he was hit by a fascist bullet in the chest.” David Smith, the medic who attempted to staunch the bleeding with a coagulant, also confirmed that he had been killed by the Nationalists.
Paul Robeson was in Spain when Law and other Black members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were there on the front line. Robeson spoke volumes about Law’s gallantry when he noted, “I would like to make a film on the life of a Black commander of the Lincoln Battalion in the International Brigades who died there, but this would be refused by the big Yankee movie companies.”
Robeson was obviously referring to Law, and the film was never made.
Naval hero John Henry Lawson
If you’ve never heard of the Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections, you are not alone. Not until it was brought to my attention by Harlem resident Mani Gilyard was I aware of an organization of African-American stamp collectors. Gilyard, the immediate past president of ESPER, made sure I had a number of Reflections, the group’s publication, and one of them was particularly interesting.
In a recent conversation with Gilyard, who I’ve known for years, we discussed some of the oldest stamps with an African-American image. He said there was one of Booker T. Washington, a 10 cent stamp that was issued in 1940, though it wasn’t of much value.
Among the copies of Reflections he gave me was one in which Don Neal wrote about the Black connection to Civil War stamps. He cited three Black sailors who had distinguished themselves in battle and were the recipients of Congressional Medal of Honors. One of them was Landsman John Henry Lawson. A landsman, Neal noted, was the lowest rank of the U.S. Navy, and given to recruits with little or no experience at sea. They performed menial, unskilled work aboard ships. Such were Lawson’s duties aboard the USS Hartford on Aug. 5, 1864, during an engagement of successful attacks against Fort Morgan in the Mobile Bay.
“Wounded in the leg,” Neal wrote of Lawson, quoting from the official citation, “and thrown violently against the side of the ship when an enemy shell killed or wounded the six-man crew as the shell whipped on the berth deck.
“Lawson, upon regaining his composure, promptly returned to his station and, although urged to go below for treatment, steadfastly continued his duties throughout the remainder of the action.” It was during his battle that Admiral David Farragut, the commander of the ship, shouted his famous phrase, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Neal doesn’t provide much detail about Lawson’s life, but information about him and his legacy are available at the U.S. Navy database and many publications that offer extensive coverage of Black veterans.
Born June 16, 1837, in Pennsylvania, Lawson joined the Navy while living in New York City in 1863. He was able to enlist following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. After being discharged from the Navy, he returned to the Philadelphia area, where he became a devout family man, earning his living as a vendor. Some historians, including the eminent W.E.B. Du Bois, often categorized vendors as hucksters, a rather pejorative term for a less than honorable dealer. In his classic study “The Philadelphia Negro,” Du Bois listed a total of 37 hucksters in the city. Their number was fourth on the list of occupations in the city at that time, trailing only janitors, laundrymen, construction workers or kalsominers and cigar makers.
Lawson died in Philadelphia on May 3, 1919. Many members of his extended family resided in Camden, N.J., and several of them assembled to commemorate his life in 2004 at Mount Peace Cemetery in Lawnside, N.J. They had come to dedicate a new burial spot and tombstone for Lawson. His original gravesite is not known since a fire destroyed burial records and cemetery maps, and his tombstone sank and what remained was unreadable.
A retired educator and a member of the cemetery’s board of trustees, Bryson C. Armstead Sr. was chiefly responsible for raising the money and campaigning for Lawson’s rededication event—an action he had done for other veterans buried at the site. Lawson’s granddaughter was among those at the event. She headed the list of numerous great-great-great grandchildren.
We should also note the three other heroes and Medal of Honor awardees along with Lawson in 1864. All three were briefly discussed by Neal. Landsman William Brown (1836-1896) was aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn during the Battle of Mobile Bay. He was stationed close to the explosion of a shell that hit the ship, but Brown stayed at his post in the powder division. In the end, Brown and his crew were successful and helped to damage and destroy batteries at Fort Morgan as well as gain the surrender of the rebel ram ship the C.S.S. Tennessee.
Wilson Brown was a landsman aboard the U.S.S. Hartford, fighting alongside Lawson, he resumed his duties after regaining consciousness. Engineer’s cook James Mifflin was, like William Brown, aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn when it was hit by enemy fire. The courage he displayed was very similar to that of his predecessors here, bravely manning his station and helping to accomplish their mission.
Few books on the Civil War have devoted much attention to the role of the U.S. Navy in bringing about the Union victory, and even less about the Black seamen who, as exemplified by the four mentioned here, were just as courageous as their fellow soldiers on the ground.
Something more has been said about ESPER, and perhaps as they prepare for their annual conference, we can give them some play, just as we need to remember those gallant warriors who braved the battles at sea. Here’s a comment from ESPER’s current president, Walter Faison: “How can we fulfill ESPER’s mission? The first step is to know what our mission is. 1) To promote interest in the collection of philatelic material depicting the African Diaspora. 2) To introduce African-Americans to the hobby of philately and to enhance their collecting experience.” He added that their mission was also to provide educational scholarships and to lecture on stamp collecting, especially with the younger generation.
Let us hope that we’ve fulfilled a portion of ESPER’s mission.
Tuskegee Airman Calvin Spann, a ‘Red Tail’ in the sunset
For a man of his character and integrity, there was never a reason for Calvin Spann to lie or fancy up a tale, particularly if it had anything to do with being a “Red Tail” fighter. During the dogfights in the sky with the German planes, the Tuskegee pilots were easily distinguished by the red tails of their P51 Mustangs.
Spann’s adventures began in Rutherford, N.J., where he was born Nov. 28, 1924. Always energetic and inquisitive, Spann, at the age of 16, was a Golden Gloves boxing champion. It was not too long after this success in the ring that he embarked on another fight in the war against fascism. He was 17 when he dropped out of high school, passed a two-year college equivalency test and was called to serve in the Army Air Corps.
As a new recruit, he was sent to Tuskegee, Ala., for aviation cadet training in 1943. Upon completing the course work, at which he excelled, he was dispatched to Italy as a replacement pilot. This deployment was on short notice, and because he had never flown a P51, they gave him an instruction manual. This lack of information was no challenge for a man who was a quick study.
His stint in Italy could have ended if the military had known his home had burned down while he was overseas. His mother kept this information to herself, fearing that disclosing the news to the Red Cross would end his career, as he would have been sent home because he was the oldest male in the family.
Spann was assigned to the legendary 100th Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group. He flew 29 combat missions in Europe before the end of World War II. On his first mission, according to what he said in his biography by Lee Frances Brown, he flew on the wing of Lt. Roscoe Brown, a distinguished airman who is credited with being the first to shoot down a German jet.
These missions were flown with the utmost of confidence by the Tuskegee Airmen, Spann related. Whether flying reconnaissance or escorting bombers, which was their primary task—and they never lost a bomber to enemy fire—Spann said, “That first ride is a thrill, even for a young, crazy guy … We were trained to feel that if something was going to happen, it would be to the other guy, not you. Prayer has always been in the forefront of what I’ve tried to do.”
His tenure with the Tuskegee Airmen was illustrious, and he was the recipient of many awards, including the Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation and the Mediterranean Theatre of Operation ribbon. There were also victory buttons for his chest.
He was honourably discharged in 1946. Though he was no longer in uniform on a regular basis and never retired, he was in the Air Force Reserves until 1961.
In 2006, Tuskegee University awarded him a Doctor of Public Service degree. After being inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame, Spann was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama, along with other Tuskegee Airmen and their families, for a Veterans Day event.
According to information gleaned from background material available during his appearance at the Library, Spann left the reserves because of the limited scheduling opportunities allowed for African-Americans to fly. “I was trying to go to school at nights and work during the day,” he recalled. “I couldn’t spend the weekends trying to get a plane and not even get one. They didn’t allocate enough planes for people to get their time in. And pilots have to fly at least four hours a month to qualify for flying pay. Not getting a chance to fly, I decided to get my discharge.”
Spann was no longer in the cockpit of a plane when President Harry Truman in 1948 issued an executive order that desegregated the military. Even so, the Black airmen were not stifled by the discrimination and the racism they received. To them, it was another obstacle to overcome, one on the ground and not in the air.
Getting a job as a commercial pilot for one of the major airlines, however, was a barrier he was unable to hurdle. Instead, Spann worked for a pharmaceutical company for many years.
After his speech at the Library, Spann was presented with Key to the City by then-Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, along with proclamations from New Jersey Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham and Councilwoman-at-Large Viola Richardson. He was gracious in his acceptance of the awards, somewhat bewildered and wondering how he would make room in his vast collection.
Up until a year ago, Spann lived in Englewood, but last year he moved to Allen, Texas, to be closer to his family.
This family was his second family because once you’re a Tuskegee Airman, that family, that entourage of courage, takes precedent over all other ensembles
Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Black spy during the Civil War
It is highly unlikely that Mary Elizabeth Bowser’s name will surface at any time during these reflections, but this is a perfect time to recall this remarkable woman, who was born a slave in Richmond, Va., March 30, 1840.
Her story begins in servitude and ends in gratitude, given her ability as a spy for the Union forces during the Civil War. As the slave of John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant, Bowser was freed upon his death in 1843. Though no longer forced to work in the Van Lew household, she chose to remain there for several years, well into the late 1850s. Later, Elizabeth Van Lew, aware of Bowser’s native abilities and intelligence, sent her to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia.
After graduating, Bowser returned to Richmond and was subsequently married to Wilson Bowser, a free Black man. They were married in 1861, four days before Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War.
Her marriage did not end her association with the Van Lew family, and since the matriarch of the family was a prominent member of Richmond’s upper class and political circle, this afforded Bowser the singular opportunity in the nation’s history of espionage.
Months before enlisting Bowser into the world of spies, Elizabeth Van Lew had often demonstrated her sympathies for the Union forces, at times visiting them in prisons, helping some of them to escape and hiding them in secret rooms in her vast mansion.
To get Bowser into the elite of Confederate society, Van Lew first made her out to be a bit feeble-minded, unable to read and write—which she could—but a loyal and dutiful servant. Under the assumed name of Ellen Bond, Bowser, through Elizabeth’s maneuvers, gained entrance and acceptance as a servant for Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president.
Soon, Bowser was a trusted servant in the Confederate White House, preparing meals, cleaning rooms and generally having the run of the White House. It was in this capacity that she was often in Davis’ office with a chance to see many of the papers and documents on his desk—all of this occurring in the latter days of the Civil War.
Because Bowser was deemed an ignorant housekeeper and maid, Davis took no extra precaution in securing important information. What he wasn’t aware of was Bowser’s photographic memory. With this gift, she was able to memorize many of the important papers on his desk and in his study, and report back to Van Lew what she had seen. She also overheard and remembered a number of conversations between Davis and his associates and advisers.
When she wasn’t delivering this information to Van Lew, she was relating it to Thomas McNiven, a local baker who then passed it on to Union officers and others in the spy network. Some of this activity was duly recorded in McNiven’s journal, in which he noted that Bowser “was working right in the Davis home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis home to drop information.”
When Davis discovered there was a leak of information from the White House, the first suspicion was McNiven and then, by association, Bowser. She became aware that she was about to be apprehended and questioned, and quickly left the White House in January 1965. As a last act, she unsuccessfully attempted to burn down the White House.
What was later burned by the federal government were any papers indicating Bowser or McNiven’s spy activities, thereby protecting them from any future problems. While Bowser at one time kept a diary of her experiences, particularly the valuable military information that proved vital to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and other Union officers, that journal was accidently discarded by her family nearly a century later.
Other than the research and books of Lois M. Leveen, especially “A Black Spy in the White House” and her novel “The Secrets of Mary Bowser,” there are very few details about her life and legacy. The year and circumstances of her death are unknown.
From several websites we learn that Bowser, in 1995, was honored by the U.S. government for her dedication, sacrifice and her daring risk by inducting her into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Some of Bowser’s exploits are captured in the play “Lady Patriot,” written by Ted Lange, the actor of the television series “Love Boat.” The play was produced by Mary Lange and premiered in Santa Monica, Calif., at the Hudson Backstage Theatre.
Sgt. Clarence Beavers, a pioneering Black paratrooper during World War II
As a pioneering African-American paratrooper during World War II, Clarence Beavers never came under enemy fire, but he often leaped from a plane to battle fires caused by Japanese bombs in the Pacific Northwest. When Beavers died in December 2017 of congestive heart failure in Huntington, N.Y., at 96, he was the last surviving member of the Black parachute unit known as Triple Nickles or 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
The Triple Nickles never acquired the fame and recognition of other African-American fighting units during U.S. wars, but this small unit was no less significant and brave in carrying out duties that with each jump left them with some sort of injury.
Beavers and the other 16 members of his unit were dispatched to fight fires started by bombs carried by balloons. Not only were they the original “smoke jumpers,” they also helped to pave the way toward integrating the nation’s armed services.
Protected by a helmet that resembles those worn by football players today and a mesh mask to guard against branches piercing his face, Beavers made a countless number of jumps from a C-47 transport plane, deliberately guiding his parachute to land in trees to break his fall, and on one occasion seriously injured his back.
Born June 12, 1921, in Manhattan, N.Y., Clarence Hylan Beavers was the 15th of 16 children. His maternal grandfather was a former slave who fought for the Union in the Civil War; his father was a commercial artist with Ringling Bros. circus. According to Beavers, his father had to leave Alabama after helping to protect all-Black Talladega College from being torched by the Ku Klux Klan.
After graduation from high school, Beavers joined the New York National Guard and two years later in 1941 was drafted into the Army. When a military advisory committee recommended the creation of a Black parachute battalion, Beavers was among the first to volunteer. He was sent to “jump school” or parachute training school at Fort Benning, Ga. Their training, Beavers recalled, was “extremely rough and extremely personal training.” He said he and his fellow Black soldiers slept cramped, two to a bunk, in unheated huts and ate separately from their white peers in a mess hall. Meanwhile, the German prisoners of war had better conditions at the base.
Rather than being dispatched to the European theater of combat, the Black paratroopers, in effect, a “test platoon,” were sent to Pendleton, Ore., and assigned to work with the U.S. Forest Service. This was a secret mission called Operation Firefly. Their task was to put out the fires. “It was really a kind of terrorism operation,” said Lincoln Bramwell, chief historian for the Forest Service. He said there were six fatalities from the bombs, the only casualties in the Lower 48 states during the war.
“At first we were bitter,” Beavers told Newsday in 2004, describing his feelings after learning that he and his battalion would not be sent into combat. “We thought, ‘They’ve taken away our rifles and given us picks and shovels.’ But as we learned about the dangers involved and the lives we could save, we began to take real pride in our work.”
Overall, the unit responded to about three dozen fire calls, performing more than 1,200 individual jumps. Not only did they extinguish fires ignited by the Japanese bombs, they also had to put out fires caused by lightning or other natural causes. Their weapon of choice was not a rifle but a Pulaski, a combination digging-cutting tool for the purpose of starving a fire. They were also equipped with crosscut saws.
“Nobody in those days figured that Black folks had either the courage or the intelligence to do anything white folks would do,” said Joe Murchison, a retired Triple Nickles paratrooper who now heads the 555th Parachute Infantry Association. “Our first paratrooper had one of the white trainers bet his house that he wouldn’t jump out of the airplane. Well, he jumped out of the plane. He didn’t get the house.”
After a jump injury, Beavers was discharged from the service as a staff sergeant. His unit was deactivated and became part of the 82nd Airborne Division. In 1948, following an executive order by President Truman, the entire military was integrated. Beavers was subsequently employed on computer systems for the Veterans Administration, and for many years lived in Germany while developing a computerized payroll system for the Defense Department.
He retired in 1978 and, in a land-bound twist on his earlier occupation, served as a volunteer firefighter in upstate New York. Beavers and his test platoon received relatively scant recognition from the military until 2010, when he and two other since-deceased paratroopers in the unit were honored at the Pentagon. “These three gentlemen,” said Michele S. Jones, a retired paratrooper and Defense Department official, “opened the door, they kicked open the door, they took the door off the hinges.”
And the intrepid Beavers was among the first through the door and sailing from a cargo plane to a raging fire. His unit being on a secretive mission may have been one reason they never got the attention and acclaim given to other African-American combat units. But that never seemed to bother Beavers and his comrades.
Like he told reporters, after all was said and done, “We took pride in our work.” His was a life well lived and service uncommonly rendered.