On Veterans Day, in the centennial of the start of World War I, please join me in recalling the black soldiers who were barely mentioned when the end-of-war celebrations took place and memorials were built across the South.
In my hometown, Conyers, Ga., there is at least an "Army, colored" section on the memorial placed in the old courthouse by the local American Legion, dedicated to: "Veterans of the World War Who Enlisted From Rockdale County". The war started in Europe in July 1914; the United States joined the Allies three years later. "Major hostilities," as the historians say, ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
Those "colored" Rockdale County veterans, young farm boys uprooted and sent abroad to fight "the war to end all wars," included my future grandfather, Clarence Shipp; his future brother-in-law, Lucious Holden; and his future cousins-by-marriage, Buster and William Giles. (My grandmother, Celia Holden Shipp, who married Clarence a few months after his discharge from the Army, was a Giles granddaughter; Lucious Holden was her brother.)
Clarence Shipp was 23 years old and single when he enlisted on Feb. 25, 1918. The registrar described him as just over 5'7" tall and dark complexioned with black hair and brown eyes. As a private in the Army's 514 Engineers unit, he saw action in France from Apr. 29, 1918, to June 6, 1919 (exactly 36 years before I was born!). He was not wounded, was in "good" physical condition and had "excellent" character, according to the discharge records I found in the courthouse. Upon his discharge, he apparently received $90.87, which included a $50 bonus authorized by the Revenue Act of 1918. (That's Big Daddy Shipp in the photo, on the left. He's with my father, Johnnie Will Shipp, who saw action in France after the D-Day invasion in World War II.)
On the maternal side of my family: My grandmother's uncle, Jodie Aiken, answered the draft in Covington, Ga., on June 5, 1917. The registrar described him as "tall, stout, black hair and eyes". After unsuccessfully claiming exemption because his parents and a child under the age of 12 were dependent upon him, Jodie was sent abroad and, according to an entry in Big Mama Moore's Bible, he died in France in 1919. I have not been able to locate military records for him. Jodie Aiken may have fallen victim to the 1918-1919 flu pandemic that killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide. According to some accounts I've read, about half the American World War I casualties in Europe were flu-related.
On this Veterans Day, let's remember all who have answered the call in all American military actions, but especially the unsung black veterans and, more specially, those who served in World War I when democracy for them at home was still a few wars away.
E. R. Shipp is a Conyers native, member of the Rockdale County High School Class of 1972 and journalist formerly with The New York Times and New York Daily News. In 1996 she won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her column in the New York Daily news. She is now a journalist in residence at Morgan State University and resides in Baltimore, Md.