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North Carolina Minorities and WWI: Sharing Stories from Original Records, Part 1

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

Since the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR) initiated its centennial commemoration of World War I using original records in its holdings, over the past few months we have received comments from the public related to the lack of minority representation from the state during the war. Because this is a topic I am wholly invested in, and as the collection manager for the WWI Papers at the State Archives of North Carolina, I thought it was time to address the public’s concerns regarding this matter. This discussion will be broken into two separate blog posts: Part 1: How the Lack of WWI minorities’ records occurred in North Carolina; and Part II: What the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and others in the state are doing to solve the problem.

One of the principal responsibilities of a public historian is to use original materials—whether letters, photographs, artifacts, or recordings—to help tell stories representing the scope of as wide a population as possible for a given location, event, or time period in history. The challenge for those of us in the public history field—especially archivists who work with original records and museum professionals who work with three-dimensional artifacts—is to meet this responsibility in the face of a tremendous lack of original materials. In the digital world in which we live, people have become accustomed to finding whatever information they want virtually, whenever they want it, and sharing it however they choose. Public historians do not have such a luxury when dealing with materials from the past: we either have the materials or not; they have either survived or not.

In the case of minorities in North Carolina who served in WWI, the records are scarce to virtually non-existent. Those records or artifacts that have survived have limited description, or whether they belonged to a specific military service individual or not is hard to prove due to limited documentation. It is also of significance to acknowledge the racial politics and social standards of the 1910s and 1920s in North Carolina, that have contributed to the lack of original materials surviving for African Americans, women, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities—at least in the holdings of DNCR institutions and sites. We are not ignoring the stories of minorities from the state in the war; we simply do not have enough original items in this state to do so.

It is also important to note the difference between the amount of, accessibility to, and cost of various materials during WWI and WWII. Photography was far more accessible and it was cheaper to have prints made during WWII than it was in WWI, due to changes in technologies. Fewer photographs made of soldiers means fewer have survived—and not just for minorities. Fewer publications, manuals, training materials, weapons types, communication options, and other similar things were available during WWI than in WWII, meaning fewer things have survived from WWI to document the wider population of the state.

Before I go further, I would like to suggest the following blog post on how the North Carolina Historical Commission (from which the State Archives and the N.C. Museum of History originate) collected records during WWI. Related specifically to African Americans, the North Carolina Historical Commission attempted to collect materials from black communities and servicemen from the state. Between 1918 and June 1919, promises from leading African American reverends, teachers, principals, businessmen, doctors, and leaders in numerous North Carolina counties to collect records from their communities were obtained by the state Council of Defense and the Historical Commission. This would continue into at least 1922 around the state. However, with the outbreak of race riots in the summer of 1919 around the United States—as well as the tension over African American servicemen who experienced some level of social freedom in Europe during the war but returned to segregation—caused distrust in official state agencies among African Americans throughout the state. This is largely the reason why the State Archives of North Carolina does not have many wartime records of North Carolina African Americans’ contributions to the war effort.

As an example of this, in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection (which are the original records collected by the Historical Commission around the time of the war) only eight known portraits or group photographs of black North Carolinian servicemen exist. These images have largely been used repeatedly over the years for various exhibits and publications, due to the lack of images from other representative black servicemen from the state. The WWI Papers also contain a limited number of black servicemen questionnaires returned to the Historical Commission as part of an effort to create a statewide Roll of Honor for those N.C. service individuals who died in the war.

For other minorities in the state, history and social customs have also resulted in a lack of materials being donated to the state’s historic preservation institutions. Many Mexicans in North Carolina in the 1910s were migrant workers working in farms and orchards, which meant they were under no obligation to serve in the U.S. military. Also, ill feelings toward Mexico by many Americans over the Mexican Border Crisis involving Pancho Villa that ended in March 1917 may have played a part. Mexicans or other Latin Americans (who may have culturally been associated with them) may not have been targeted for collection of their WWI service materials even if they did serve in the war from North Carolina. Not all Mexicans in the state were migrant workers, obviously, and a number did indeed serve. But, due to the racial or ethnic categories on federal military records, Latin Americans and Asian Americans may have been listed as “colored”—making it impossible without more records to verify ethnicity or national origin.

Native Americans in North Carolina have virtually no records that survived in the public records of the state. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is still struggling to find anything beyond the list shown below to document men from its tribe who served in the war. The same is true for the populations of Asian Americans in the state, who often are not even mentioned in scholarly books or articles published on WWI in North Carolina.

Check out Part 2 of this post for information on what the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and others in the state are doing to solve the problem of the lack of original WWI minorities records and information, and how you the public can help.