North Carolina's WWI Collector of War Records

3rd Liberty Loan poster
Author: 
Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

The North Carolina Historical Commission (the precursor of the State Archives of North Carolina and the North Carolina Museum of History) recognized at the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War I the importance for North Caroling to begin an effort of collecting materials which documented the role taken by North Carolina soldiers and civilians in the war. In cooperation with the North Carolina Council of Defense, a special history committee, called the “Historical Preservation” committee, was appointed by the Council of Defense.

The Historical Preservation committee consisted of the North Carolina Historical Commission Secretary Robert Digges Wimberly (or R. D. W.) Connor, as chairman; Haywood Parker of Asheville, North Carolina; Ms. Adelaide Fries of Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Paul W. Schenck of Greensboro, North Carolina; Edgecombe County-native George Gordon Battle, who was one of the leading lawyers in New York City at the outbreak of WWI; Ms. Lida T. Rodman; and J. G. deR. Hamilton of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

The Council of Defense Historical Preservation committee’s mission was to collect for permanent preservation the war records of the state of North Carolina. The term “war records” was given the widest possible interpretation, so as to include all materials that illustrate the state of mind of the citizens of North Carolina toward World War I; the effect of the war on social, educational, economic, agricultural, political and religious conditions; and the personal achievements, sacrifices, and services of North Carolina individuals in the war.

Efforts were made by the North Carolina Historical Commission to secure the cooperation of such organizations as the State and County Councils of Defense; the State and County Fuel Administrations; the State and County Food Administrations; the American Red Cross; and other organizations engaged in work connected with the World War I preparedness and support efforts of the United States.

The Historical Preservation committee and the North Carolina Historical Commission urged these institutions, organizations, and members of the public to preserve carefully their records, and ultimately deposit them with the North Carolina Historical Commission. Efforts were also made to secure assistance in this work through the appointment in each county of a county historian for war purposes.

However, these efforts were not particularly successful, as resources and people were stressed throughout the war at the local level in North Carolina. Individuals willing to work as volunteer war record collectors were secured in sixty counties during the war. These individuals promised to aid in the historical preservation work of the committee, but only a few of them had been active throughout World War I.

Not much could be accomplished in terms of collecting war materials, however, due to a lack of funding and the lack of a law by the North Carolina State Legislature indicating a state-backed collection program. From 1917 to 1919, the State Legislature was not in session, and this scenario could not be remedied. However, in 1919 the State Legislature formally approved the North Carolina Historical Commission’s war records collection efforts with the passage of Chapter 144 of the North Carolina Public Laws and Resolutions (specifically Sections 3 and 4) in 1919. The new law empowered the Historical Commission to appoint a collector of World War records, and provided money for the project’s support.

Acting under authority of this law, the Historical Commission chose Robert B. House to be the Collector of World War Records, and House entered upon his work on June 19, 1919. On taking up his duties, House found that the Historical Preservation committee of the State Council of Defense (through a system of volunteer collecting in various counties of the state), and Col. Fred A. Olds (North Carolina Historical Commission Hall of History Collector) had already collected a large amount of war materials.

House tried to systemize the collection process and network of volunteer collectors around North Carolina. House and a part-time stenographer worked to copy information from original materials; label, classify, and identify original materials; and operate a continuous correspondence network with individuals throughout the state and with federal war-time government offices.

One of House’s first tasks was to survey all possible sources of information concerning North Carolina in the World War to be found in the National Archives; in departments of the North Carolina government; and among the various county organizations and individuals of North Carolina. Having found other states in America were performing the same records collection work during the war, in September 1919, representatives from several states met in Washington, D.C., to organize what became the National Association of State War History Organizations. This was a cooperative enterprise financed by a membership fee of $200, paid by each member state organization. The North Carolina Historical Commission became a member of this association. This organization assisted North Carolina and House in standardizing war records collection policies and procedures.

In North Carolina’s government departments, House found that the correspondence and published documents from the years 1917 to 1920 would be essential for documenting the state’s role in World War I. But, those documents still held an administrative value in their respective government offices during the war and could not be released to the North Carolina Historical Commission for preservation. House strongly advocated with the heads of each office the necessity of preserving their records for the war years, until such time as they could be released to the Historical Commission.

The records produced by county organizations and individuals in North Carolina were found to be in a chaotic state. In many cases, officials of various war-work organizations in the state had destroyed their records immediately upon the signing of the armistice ending World War I, under the impression that these records were of no further value. In many cases, they had kept no complete records during the course of the war.

World War Records Collector House made attempts to gain assistance in the war records collection work through the appointment in each county of a county historian (or county war records collector) for war purposes—in addition or to supplement the individuals who the Historical Commission had been working with prior to House's hiring—but these efforts were not particularly successful. Due to the loss of individuals in North Carolina counties for service outside of the state, the taxing nature of the war on county resources, rationing of fuel and limited transportation options for some counties, and time required for the records collection, House found it difficult to locate responsible, educated people in every North Carolina county willing and able to carry this work out for the whole duration of World War I (which meant at the time through 1920).

People were secured, confirmed, or renewed by House in sixty North Carolina counties who promised to aid in the records collection work, along the same lines as similar efforts made in 1917 through early 1919. Only a few of the county collectors were active and gathered significant numbers or amount of historic war-related records. Ultimately, records from eighty-one counties were collected by the Historic Commission in this collection.

The following individuals were the most active county war records collectors, which explains why in the North Carolina County War Records collection (WWI 2) there are more materials for some counties than others: Mrs. John Huske Anderson (Cumberland County); J. R. McCrary (Davidson County); A. P. Godwin (Gates County); W. C. Jackson (Guilford County); Daisy Crump Whitehead (Halifax County); John A. Currie (Hoke County); Florence Swindell (Hyde County); H. Gait Braxton (Lenoir County); Catherine Albertson (Pasquotank County); Isabel Graves (Surry County); W. Brodie Jones (Warren County); F. H. Hendren (Wilkes County); and J. Dempsey Bullock (Wilson County).

The North Carolina Historical Commission also attempted to collect materials from African American 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. 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 from African Americans throughout the state. This is largely the reason to this day the State Archives of North Carolina does not have many wartime records of North Carolina African Americans’ contribution to the war effort.

Most of the county war collectors sent the materials they collected during World War I from 1919 to 1923 to the North Carolina Historical Commission; some would continue sending in records through 1939. Many of the county collectors, acting on instructions from the Historical Commission, waited that long to send in the records in order to write compiled histories of their county’s operations and history during the war. Today, the materials collected during the war are the majority of the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina.

A hundred years after the United States entered the war, North Carolina’s wartime records still exist as they were received by the then North Carolina Historical Commission. The public is encouraged to come use these records at the State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh, and experience the benefit of our predecessors’ foresight in gathering these materials for posterity. You can also view a large number of these records online in the digital WWI collection of the North Carolina Digital Collections, a joint effort of the State Archives of North Carolina and the State Library of North Carolina.