In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans

This post originally appeared on Sacred Ground, Sacred History, November 12, 2018

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.

At times, whether simply visiting their gravesites, or planting flags, I’d find myself staring down at the stones, and wondering what their WWI experience was like. Sure, I could review the details of the various battles and engagements in books, or read first-person accounts from some of the more famous veterans, but those sources wouldn’t tell me what my ancestors thought, nor how they felt about the war.

That’s why I was so excited to learn about the WWI History Commission questionnaires, many of which have been or are currently being digitized by local and state libraries. A historical window into the minds and memories of long-deceased ancestors? Perfect!

Colored Soldiers Attention – The Virginia War History Commission has decided to place record of the achievements of the colored soldiers from Virginia in the World War in the volumes with the record of the white soldiers, for this purpose of Board of Negro Collaborators has been appointed to collect this data. Headquarters have been established at the Mechanics Savings Bank building and all persons knowing of persons, who distinguished themselves abroad will send their names and addresses to Prof. T. C. Erwin, Secretary, Mechanics Savings Bank Building, Richmond, Va. As there is but a limited time to secure this information all persons are urged to act at once. It will be very unfortunate if this history should be published and the colored troops not recognized in the compilation due to negligence or failure to send in the information. Questionnaires may be obtained for the asking by sending for the same as indicated. Write at once and help this worthy cause.


The Richmond Planet, Saturday, April 24, 1920

During a two-day visit to the Library of Virginia, I eagerly reviewed reels of microfilm, looking for any applications that our ancestors submitted to the commission. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any at all, and felt the familiar feeling of smacking into another genealogy “brick wall.” However, amidst my disappointment, I noticed something else; some of the veterans had chosen to fill out their applications thoroughly, supplying detailed answers to questions about their views on religion, the war, and (if relevant) their combat experience. I paid close attention to applications submitted by veterans that lived in the same neighborhoods as my ancestors, and have included a small portion of them here.

Richmond, Virginia

Pvt. Otis P. Robinson (1890-1918) – Company B, 545 Engrs

Original gravesite of Pvt. Otis P. Robinson, American Cemetery, St. Nazaire, France, 1918. Library of Virginia

Otis Purcell Robinson was born on March 2, 1890 in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of William T. Robinson and Victoria Edmonds, who are both interred in Evergreen Cemetery. He was the brother of Carrie Gustava Robinson Harris Gladden (1880-1948), William Bernard Robinson (ca.1884), Oscar C. Robinson, and Julian Merchant Robinson (ca. 1889).

Prior to World War I, Pvt. Robinson worked as a porter, and general laborer with the British American Tobacco Company (est. 1902). He was a member of Sharon Baptist Church. He enlisted on June 5, 1917, and left for Europe on September 23, 1918 aboard the Rijndam, a Dutch-owned vessel built in Ireland in 1901, acquired by the U. S. Navy for troop transport on May 1, 1918. 

Sometime during the voyage to Europe, Otis P. Robinson contracted pneumonia, and died on October 15, 1918. He was originally interred on October 19, 1918, in grave 326, plot K, square #1 of the American Cemetery, located in St. Nazaire, France. He was disinterred on November 7, 1921, and re-interred in Richmond National Cemetery, Virginia, in February, 1922.

Grave of Pvt. Otis Purcell Robinson, Richmond National Cemetery. Source: Ancestry.com

From his last letter to sister Carrie:

“Dear Sister, pray for me, or pray to God in heaven, is better than anything else I know; pray God Bless you and be with you, until we meet again. From your devoted brother Otis P. Robinson – Camp Humphreys Va. 545 Co. Engrs.”

Pvt.Robinson’s 1920 questionnaire was filled out by his sister, Carrie. In it, she included the following words

“My star of hope — I looked from out my window and in the sky afar a tiny ship a anchor, There shone a golden star. Tis a lamp set in his window, a light unto my feet, Both he, and I are waiting until we two shall meet; It beams before my vision, It sooths my weary brains; It gives me peace in sadness and banishes the pain; My star of hope so precious I call this Golden Star; It shineth in my (unreadable); my loved one lost in War; devoted sister Carrie G. Harris.”

Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. (1899-1963) – Pvt., Student Army Training Corps, Virginia Union University 

A. Lincoln Harris, Jr., The Crisis (1922)

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr., regarded as the first nationally recognized African American economist, was born on January 17, 1899, Richmond, Virginia, to Abram Lincoln Harris, Sr. and Mary E. Lee , who are interred in East End Cemetery. He was the brother of Edna Celeste Harris Johnson, Cyril David Harris (1908-1909), Miriam Harris Fisher, Collins Jonathan Harris, John Malcolm Harris (1907-1937), and Madelyn G. Harris. A Baptist in faith, he was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

His attitude towards military service:

Prior to being inducted into the army I felt that any war fought to preserve the autonomy of weaker people should be supported by all liberty loving persons

On the effects of camp experience in the United States:

Camp life such as I experienced was physically wholesome. I was more fit physically after discharge mentally, conditions were less favorable

Overall effect of war experience with his state of mind before the war:

My actual experience had no effect upon my religious beliefs because I had no oversea experience. But the basic causes underlying the World War with its subsequent horrors and brutalities which are constantly referred to by eminent scholars some of whom had actual experience in the conflict force me to conclude that religion is inefficacious as a panacea for human social ills. Religionists have used the channels of public expression for the purpose of sowing the seeds of discord, racial and international hatred.

Still as a believer in the potency and effectiveness of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, my faith is unshaken. The solution of international problems is to be had only by the application of these teachings in social as well as individual life. Until now, hardly can any nation boast of having lived in accordance with the ideas of Christ. One nation is no more reprehensible than another.

In short, my knowledge of the recent war forces me to draw a hard line of demarcation between religion and Christianity, for surely ardent religious fervor was amply demonstrated on all sides during the recent crisis but the love of Jesus Christ was woefully lacking.

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. Photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris passed away on November 15, 1963, and was interred in Montrose Cemetery, Chicago. His obituary in the November 18, 1963 edition of the Chicago Tribune described Dr. Harris as a “distinguished economist, social theorist, teacher, and writer.” On Dr. Harris’ legacy, the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote:

Abram L. Harris, 64, formerly of Richmond,professor of economics at the University of Chicago, died Saturday in Chicago.

Dr. Harris, a Negro, headed the department of economics at Howard University at Howard University in Washington from 1936 to 1945. He also had been on the faculties of West Virginia State College and the College of the City of New York.

An authority on the problems of the Negro, he came to the University of Chicago in 1946. His books include “The Black Worker,” “The Negro as a Capitalist,: and “Ethics.”

Survivors include his wife, a brother, Jonathan Harris of Richmond, and a sister, Mrs. Madelyn H. Edmunds of Washington


he Richmond Times Dispatch, November 17, 1963

Categories: Buncombe County, East End Cemetery - Richmond, Evergreen Cemetery - Richmond, France, Franklin County, Henderson County, Hertford County, North Carolina, Portsmouth, Richmond, Richmond National Cemetery - Richmond, Suffolk, Virginia, Warren County, World War ITags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Nadia K. Orton

Professional genealogist and public historian. Graduate of Duke University. President of the Sacred Grounds Project, Inc. Studying historic African American cemeteries and communities.

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