African Americans have served in every US conflict from the Revolution onward, but this service has always been a complicated affair due to the legacy of slavery and then Reconstruction and Jim Crow. A line from the film The Tuskegee Airmen that always comes back to me is, “How do I feel about my country and how does my country feel about me?”
I carried my play A Need Fulfilled around in my head for at least thirteen years. As coordinator for the Communications, Media Arts and Theater program at Chicago State, the university television studio came under my direct supervision. One of our alumni mentioned, after I shared my admiration for The Tuskegee Airmen, that some of the airmen lived right there in Chicago. I thought it would be an interesting student project to film the airmen and have them tell their own stories. In the third interview, one of the pilots mentioned that his wife had served in World War II. She was a nurse, and they had met in Italy.
I asked him, with some surprise, since we were talking about the 1940s, “You married a white nurse?” And he said, “No, I married this lovely sister named Louise” and pulled out a photograph. Then I replied, “You mean there were black nurses in World War II?” He smiled wryly before he spoke, “Well, they certainly weren’t going to let any white nurses look after us.” I was intrigued, as I always am, by this hidden history, and I searched for years, digging for information on what seemed to be a really obscure topic. I happened to mention my interest in the black nurses of World War II to one of my mentors as a lighting designer, Ed DeShae, and he said, “Oh, my mom was a nurse in World War II.” It seemed like I had been searching forever for this information, and there it was. Ed began to feed me with bits and pieces, which led me to more people whose mothers or aunts who had served.
Once I got rolling with the project, the story took on a life of its own until I was finally ready to write about the experiences of specific individuals. Right up until we opened the first workshop production of A Need Fulfilled, in February of 2019, new information and connections to more black women who had been military nurses in World War II kept appearing.
For my next project, another story that has always fascinated me, I am at the beginning of this process. I don’t know if there’s ever been a major film made about the 369th Harlem Hellfighters and their service during World War I—I believe one may be under development—but I thought that the exploits of these men were certainly worthy of exploration on the stage. So I was delighted to receive an HBCU Fellowship from Emory’s Rose Library to begin my search for the men of the 369th.
As a lighting designer, I use a lot of projections to enhance the stage setting and offer context beyond words. The photographs in the Robert Langmuir Collection at Emory’s Rose Library provided a great start to my examination of what that context may have meant for the black soldiers who served our country in World War I. I was grateful to have the opportunity to consult with Dr. Pellom McDaniels, who took the time to show me selected Langmuir items that illustrate the dignity and pride of those servicemen when they donned their uniforms. The transformation, which Dr. McDaniels explored in his 2017 exhibition at the Rose, “A Question of Manhood: African Americans and World War I,” was amazing and undeniable.
As I reported to the Rose Library for the first days of my fellowship, I was seated in a room that contained the traveling trunk of the author and activist James Weldon Johnson, probably best known for his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Quite an inspiration! As I waited for the items I had requested from the Langmuir collection, I couldn’t help but reflect on Johnson’s words: “The battle was first waged over the right of the Negro to be classed as a human being with a soul; later, as to whether he had sufficient intellect to master even the rudiments of learning; and today it is being fought out over his social recognition.”
The Langmuir Collection, I found, has thousands of rare images chronicling African American life, but I found the collection of postcards from Black GIs—not from the famous 369th but from the 340th, a labor battalion far more typical of 380,000 black soldiers’ experience of World War I—to be particularly fascinating. In the first series of images, we see three soldiers posing while one is seated and holding a champagne bottle. I was fortunate that the gentleman seated on the bench has been identified. He is Leroy Baker, and he is featured on five postcards. I couldn’t find anyone else who appears that many times.
Possibly Leroy Baker simply enjoyed having his picture taken, or perhaps this was the first time he liked what he saw in himself. A positive self-image! Now let’s consider some things for a moment. Is a uniform a way of wiping out a negative past? Do clothes really make the man? How important is belonging? To serve a greater cause? Did the uniform make a difference in how black soldiers in the US Army of World War I saw themselves?
I will be exploring these themes and more in my play THE FIGHTING 369TH, which chronicles the service of the Harlem Hellfighters during World War I—who were not allowed to fight for their own country, by the way, but excelled beyond belief while serving the French in the trenches. James Weldon Johnson again: “Every race and every nation should be judged by the best it has been able to produce, not by the worst.” So, in studying all the images I could find from World War I, Leroy Baker just kept popping up! I turned one of the postcards over and discovered . . .
This brother was from Mississippi!! What was life like for a black man from that state in the early 1900s? Not good by any stretch of the imagination to be sure. Living conditions mired in poverty while being stifled by Jim Crow laws. Politicians and police enforcing a status quo of the Black man as a second-class citizen. Or, as evidence documented but still largely ignored shows, frequently subject to re-enslavement under conditions just as bad and possibly worse than in the pre-Emancipation era. Separate but unequal was the creed of the day! So basically Leroy had to put on a uniform and cross an ocean to actually feel like a man. If you look at the photographs, the pride in these men’s faces is undeniable!
Even more intriguing is this next postcard with a young soldier displaying his money. His name is David Gregory. Was this the first time he had ever held this much money? Why was it so important for him to show the folk back home that he possessed “folding money”? I noticed in several other photographs soldiers proudly displaying their rank as a sign that they had truly arrived and were succeeding in the world. And it is clear that they are reveling in each other’s achievements. These postcards were a celebration! Proof to the world that not only am I able but I am thriving on an international scale!
Back to my favorite poser, Leroy Baker: somehow five images have survived in the postcards. I would love to know how the process worked. I’m pretty sure they were on leave. Did they have to pay for each pose? Did they not get a chance to mail any of the photographs? I’m looking at these four images together and I would really love to know all about the top right image. What uniform is that they are wearing? Baker’s pose is definitely provocative, almost like he’s about to step out on the fashion runway and model part of the new spring line!
Being a soldier—the ability to achieve rank and the opportunity to legally carry a weapon—gave many of these men their first chance at a level playing field, an opportunity to achieve despite the color of their skin. As I look at each of them, I can feel the pride that emanates from their very being. What did the men in the thirteen images below have to endure for the honor to serve? How did that service change their lives after the war? It is a historical fact that African Americans rushed to serve in WW I.
This is Chester Blanks with his mother at the victory day parade in 1918. If you study the photo carefully you can see the shadow of the US flag where his missing leg should be.
What sacrifice is sufficient? When are the dues fully paid? Why must we struggle to this very day over payment on an account that should have long ago been marked “Paid in full? The Negro has earned the right to be counted among men.These are just some of the questions I’ll be seeking answers to as I continue my research journey. I am grateful to the Rose Library for this intriguing start.