Prejudice and racism existed in the American military during WWI. President Wilson and his administration encouraged the military to turn their backs on the black soldiers.
It is difficult to know and understand General Pershing’s position on black soldiers, because there are many quotations from public speeches praising the black soldier. The Buffalo Soldiers in public situations had high praise from Pershing for their fighting Indians on the American plains and again for how they fought in Cuba. during the Spanish-American War.
The quotation below is from Black Americans In The US Military From The American Revolution To The Korean War: World War One:
“However, there are quotes issued by Pershing suggesting just the opposite. —a directive to the French Military Mission ….. warning them of the dangers of relying on Black troops. He stated that the Black man is an “inferior” being to the White man. The Black man lacks “civic and professional conscience” and is a “constant menace to the American.” Pershing continued “we must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside the requirements of military service.”
What ever General Pershing’s position on the black soldier, it is well known that the black soldier had to deal with racism. Because of these prejudices most of the black soldiers served in positions of non-combatant.
The most common duty for the black soldier was serving in Pioneer Regiments. They generally operated under the engineers. In a short statement, they served in units that supported the fighting soldiers. That doesn’t mean that the black soldier never fired his weapon. They were trained as infantry but this was so they could be used in battle if needed and they could defend themselves if needed. Their military training was not as intense as it was for the infantry soldier.
Some black soldiers in these Pioneer Regiments unloaded ships, built hospitals, roads, latrines, bridges, military structures, camps, and field fortifications. Quite often in building roads, bridges and etc. they were in the middle of a battle. Sometimes, when a road needed clearing during battle the Pioneer Infantry was at the front of the battle.
The Pioneer Regiments, 801 to 816, (except 810 and 812 which did not serve overseas), all served overseas.
Pioneer Regiments, 805 and 806, were formed at Camp Funston near Junction City. Many of the soldiers were from Missouri. There were also some soldiers from Kansas in the 805 Pioneer Regiment. This unit landed in France July 1918 and served there until July 1919. It is said that they saw 39 days of battle.
During this time in France the 805 built roads and light railroads under the direction of the 2nd army engineers.
Tonganoxie had 13 Black solders in WWI. Three of them served in the 805 Pioneer Regiment.
1. Henry Hicks served in the 805 Pioneer Regiment. After the war he operated a Sinclair filling station (see photo on left) a block east of Pleasant Street on Evans Road. The building was on the north side of the road. The building was large enough to have a restaurant, a dance floor, and the property had a few cabins to rent. They raised much of the food they served. Chickens year round and vegetables from a garden in spring and summer. He was well respected by the community.
2. Alex Jackson served in the 805 Pioneer Regiment. He was a farmer before and after the war. He farmed north east of Tonganoxie on a place that was initially owned by his grandfather, The Rev. King Langford, who settled here in 1872, Rev Landford was also responsible for establishing The First Baptist Church in Tonganoxie which is still in existence. The farm is still in the family today.
3. Ben Matthews served in the 805 Pioneer Regiment. He never married and farmed for others. He lived at Neeley, now a ghost town. He also lived in the area of the Honey Valley School. The school building is now located on the Tonganoxie Community Historical Site. He was considered an excellent farm hand.
Most if not all of the Pioneer Regiments had bands. The 805’s band was formed after the 805 had been in France. The 805 had several bands which played in different areas close to where their main military unit was operating. Some of the bands played right in the battle zones. Generally the musicians were multitalented and could play any instrument. Consequently, the bands could play classical, minstrel, pop, and Jazz. They could perform plays when needed. The last band of the 805 was formed from the best musicians of all the other 805 bands. It was pronounced the best jazz band in the military.
The 805 also had an outstanding baseball team. It was undefeated. Many of the members of that ball team had played professional baseball in the negro league. Three of the members of the ball team played on the Kansas City Monarchs. Wm P. “Plunk” Drake played from 1915-1927 (except during WWI) and won two world series with the Monarch’s baseball team. Others were Otto C. “Jay bird” Ray and Hugh Blackburn.
Most of the Pioneer Regiment fielded a baseball team. Baseball was extremely popular over the United States during WW I and later. Every little town had a baseball team which usually played Sunday afternoons during a picnic.
The 815 band was noted for it’s country and western music. This Pioneer Regiment also was formed at Camp Funston. The 815 served in France. It worked with the 1st Army Engineers on roads in Verdun-Clermont area.
4. Wallace Matthews served in the 815 Pioneer Regiment. He was the brother of Ben Matthews (above). Wallace also lived in the Neeley area. He was a good farmer and extremely well defined muscularly. He worked for Norman Wiley some, but his real job was a guard at the state prison in Lansing, KS. He never owned a gasoline engine. He farmed with horses and mules, and drove a horse powered wagon to town. He lived on 19 acres. One of the things he produced on his farm was peanuts.
Two black veterans from Tonganoxie served in the 164th Depot Brigade. This Brigade operated from Camp Funston, KS. A Depot Brigade is a training unit that provides training for new recruits.
5. Roy Reynolds also served in the 164th Depot Brigade. Nothing is known about his career before or after military service.
6. Chester Brown—He enlisted October 26, 1917 at Camp Funston. He was 26 and one half years old. He was 5’ 4” tall. He was discharged from the army a Pvt. 3rd Class of 3rd Co. 4th Bn in 164th Depot Brigade. Speculation suggests that he was transferred from the 92nd Division to the 164th Depot Brigade just before he was discharged from the army.
He served in the 92nd Division from Dec. 4, 1917 to Oct 10, 1919. He was in the Marbache sector from Oct 19 to Nov. 11, 1918. His home before and after the war was along the old Leavenworth to Lawrence road NE of Tonganoxie. The area was a small area called “Lee’s Summit” (Not to be confused with Lee’s Summit,Mo.) This Lee’s Summit was located along the Union Pacific RR between Stranger Station and Hogue (Both areas have been gone for many many years).
Two black soldiers served in the 92nd Division. This is one of two black units which fought in WW 1. The 92nd Division was formed at Camp Funston, KS. In June of 1918 it sailed for France. After the War was over, this unit was scheduled to return to the United States, but due to logistics involved with moving troops and equipment, it was January of 1919 before they returned.
The 93rd Division was the other black unit that fought in WW 1. The 93rd Division fought entirely with French Units. Because of this they had a completely different experience than the 92nd had. The 93rd was loved by the French military and the French people, who invited them into their homes.
The 92nd’s higher level of officers were white. The black officers were enthusiastic, but it was said, that most of the white officers were indifferent. This was frustrating to the black soldiers. Within a few months this changed and the atmosphere in camp was better.
In France the 92nd received more training. This training was more intense. In August the 92nd took over the St. Die Sector. Later the 92nd took over the Corcieux sector and then moved on to the Muse and later into the Marbeche sector where they would on Nov. 10th for the first time attack as a unit.
Until Nov. 10th all the areas occupied by the 92nd was in support of those units which had fought for the area and then were moved out to other areas. It was a defensive attitude. The 92nd moved in to hold the area in support. There was a time during the defensive activities that the enlisted soldiers volunteered for patrol duty. It became awkward for the officers because it was difficult to have patrols for so many soldiers.
In these support situations the 92nd did fight, but it was more defensively. They did harass the enemy and had skirmishes, and pushed the Germans if they retreated, but there were no offensive efforts, until Nov. 10.
Nov. 10-11 they attacked and were quite successful. It was believe by most that the time spent at St. Die gave the 92nd confidence and strength in their ability as a soldier.
Pershing’s response to the 92nd after WW1 was over:
“I want you officers and soldiers of the 92nd Division to know that the 92nd Division stands second to none in the record you have made since your arrival in France. I am proud of the part you have played in the great conflict which ended on the 11th. of November, yet you have only done what the American people expected you to do and you have measured up to every expectation of the Commander-in-Chief. I realize that you did not get into the game as early as some of the other units, but since you took over your first sector you have acquitted yourselves with credit, and I believe that if the armistice had not become effective on the 11th day of November, the 92nd would have still further distinguished itself. I commend the 92nd Division for its achievements not only in the field, but on the record its men have made in their individual conduct. The American public has every reason to be proud of the record made by the 92nd Division.”
Chester Brown mentioned above and Bob Walton were both in the 92nd Division. It was formed at Camp Funston from Black soldiers all over the country.
7. Bob Lee Walton was a veteran of WWI. Before and after the war he was an excellent and respected pig farmer. He lived south west of Tonganoxie on Honey Creek Rd. He dressed well and was well liked. He quite often came to the Tonganoxie Sales Barn where he sometimes bought and sold pigs.
One unusual thing was Bob had a skin condition called vitiligo, which made his skin have blotchy area with no pigmentation. These areas were permanent and got bigger with age. Bob enlisted in the Army on Oct. 26, 1917 in Tonganoxie. He was 29 years old when he enlisted. He served in France from June 10, 1918 to March 18, 1919. He served in the 349th MG (Machine Gun) Battalion of the 92 Division.
8. Fred Carter– He was a nephew to Toab Carter. Fred entered the army on 2nd of August 1918 at Ft. Dodge, Iowa. He left for France on October 1918 and returned July 29th, 1919. He served as a Pvt. in the Casual Detachment 1191 Demo Group, but he was last assigned to Co. C of the 810 Pioneer Infantry. The 810 Pioneer Infantry was demobilized between Dec 10 and Dec. 21. 1918.
He never married and worked as a farm laborer for the McEnulty family and the Denholm family. After the war he continued as a farm laborer. He was well liked and considered a good reliable worker.
9. Wm Chester “ChicK” Reynolds. (It has been confirmed by Bob Matthews that William was his real name, but he was always known as Chester or “Chick”). His military career is not fully known. He was a bootlegger before and after the war. (Some people have told me that Bootlegging was an acceptable business in those days). The comical word about his business was, “He could plant a bottle of whiskey in his garden at night and harvest 10 bottles in the morning”. He was a well dressed man with a very narrow mustache under his nose. At one time it was believed that 9 bootleggers existed in Tonganoxie, Ks. “Chick” Reynolds was one. Quite often he would make his own brew to be bottled and sold. He was born in Easton, Kansas. He was involved with involved in G CO. of 45th WD and G Co. of 31 WD. He was a Corporal in the 4th Co. 3rd Bn of the 164th DB.
10. Gusta “Gussy” Wash served in the Headquarters Co. of the 65th Pioneer Infantry. He was age 23 and 4 months old when he entered the service. He joined the service at Camp Funston on August 2, 1918 and was discharged Dec. 7th, 1918. He did not go overseas and it was demobilized Dec.9, 1918. Gussy served a little more than 4 months. After the war he was a handyman around Tonganoxie. When the United States was involved with WWII a large gun powder plant (Sunflower Ordinance Plant) operated near Desoto, Kansas. Many people from Tonganoxie worked at this plant. “Gussy” worked at the powder plant. He never married, but he had at least two children, Wanda was one of his daughters. He also had several women who one at a time lived with him.
11. Arthur Brown. Not much is known about Arthur Brown. He was a brother to Chester Brown (see above). He was a Pvt. in the Reserve Labor Battalion. He enlisted in Kansas City, Ks on July 19, 1918 and was discharged at Camp Funston, KS on Dec. 23, 1918. He served about 6 months. His discharge papers say he was a teamster and had good Character.
12. Ben Wood
13. Emmitt Wash
It is believed that these two people above were soldiers in WW1, but there is little evidence that I can find to support this. Neither claimed their bounty money and all who are old enough to know their history are gone. I remember Ben Woods because I delivered groceries to his home every Saturday for 3 year. He and his wife were fine people. They were well liked by the community of Tonganoxie.