North Carolina Minorities and WWI: Sharing Stories from Original Records, Part 2

Author: 
Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

This blog post is Part II of a series entitled "North Carolina Minorities and WWI: Sharing Stories from Original Records." It's goal is to take a brief look at 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.

I began working in my current position as Military Collection Archivist in 2014. One of the goals for my position was to better organize and describe WWI and WWII collections that have been at the State Archives for 100 and 70 years, respectively, in order to make records, photographs, letters, and other archival materials documenting minorities in the state easier to find and discover. Descriptions in the WWI Papers old finding aids—done in the 1960s—continue to use racial terminology or provide limited description of the materials throughout the collection related, for example, to black soldiers or black home front efforts. We continue to find a small amount of material every week as we work long-term to find and describe these materials, but we still lack quite a bit that would help tell all North Carolinians’ stories.

The Military Collection is part of the Special Collections Section at the State Archives. Special Collections deals with non-government records donated by private citizens, such as personal papers, organizational records, or military veterans records. The majority of the WWI materials held at the State Archives are not government records, as volunteer-based groups such as the North Carolina Council of Defense helped to operate the state’s war efforts on the home front. We rely almost exclusively on the public to donate materials to us from a wide range of the state’s citizens in order to make records documenting all people in the state available for researchers to develop new interpretations of the past. As an archivist, I promote what I have in my collection to the public and researchers. If we do not have the materials, we cannot address topics from the past, which is always deflating to those of us who care deeply about helping everyone understand their history.

It is also important to note that while modern society keeps moving and trying to advance beyond past ills or sins of the past, we as public historians deal with records and artifacts from the past. Likewise, we must face the challenges of the racial and social divides of the times in which the materials we are working with were created. Many of the best stories of WWI in North Carolina revolve around the efforts of minorities to support the war effort, but the limited documentation makes it a challenge to recognize specific individuals.

What I can tell you is that we are making strides. This spring we finished the effort to digitize county draft board induction lists for all 100 North Carolina counties, which list separately all black North Carolinians sent to military training camps in WWI. As the only known copies of these lists in the state, they are now online and usable for the first time in history. A three-year effort to work with FamilySearch.org to create a freely-searchable online database of the state’s WWI Service Cards—which includes short notations on service history for all North Carolinians—was completed in November 2016. Families of minority WWI soldiers can download the service cards of their ancestors for free. Women are also occassionally listed on the cards when they served in a military capacity. The new DNCR WWI book entitled North Carolina and the Great War, 1914–1918 features an essay on African Americans with rarely-seen photographs and rarely-used documents about the role of black North Carolinians in the war effort, as well as another essay on the under-documented role of women in the state during this time.

Within the coming year, a chapter on black North Carolinians and WWI will be published in an upcoming book on the war and North Carolina edited by professors at a North Carolina university, featuring documents from the WWI Papers of the States Archives. Other universities in the state are using the State Archives’ records to piece together the story about minorities’ roles in the war for a variety of publications. Dr. Janet G. Hudson, Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, has been for a number of years using the State Archives’ WWI Service Cards for her digital humanities project “Black Soldiers Mattered: North Carolina’s Unheralded African American Soldiers from the Great War,” which has resulted in a website with analytics, unit information, and lists of black North Carolina soldiers in one location. Different historical groups and memorial commissions in a number of counties in the state are working to add names of minority service individuals to existing or new WWI memorials locally. 

We are not selecting the stories we tell about WWI in North Carolina because of racism or unintentional bias. And, the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is not alone in this struggle to find and share original materials about North Carolina minorities in the war. Many universities, local and regional history museums, and local historical societies are also struggling in this regard.

We are doing the best we can with what we have, but we need the public’s assistance. If you or someone you know have original archival materials—such as letters, photographs, military training manuals, maps, drawings, diaries, notebooks, or other similar materials from North Carolina minorities for their WWI service—or have artifacts from their service, we implore you to consider donating them to the State Archives, the N.C. Museum of History, or any of the other state historic institutions. That way everyone will have access to the materials and the stories of all the brave men and women who served in the Great War can be told more inclusively and completely.

For more information on donating to the military holdings of the N.C. Museum of History, check out their website: http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/collections/donate-artifact

For more information on donating  archival materials from minority North Carolina WWI service individuals and home front workers, check out the webpage of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina: http://archives.ncdcr.gov/Public/Collections/Non-Government/Military-Col...