World War I is different from previous wars in that while the Federal Army was still segregated, there was not a specific African American regiment from Kansas.  In the Civil War there was the First and Second Kansas Colored Infantries; the Spanish-American War had the 23rd Kansas Infantry.

Of course that does not mean there weren’t African American soldiers in World War I; some excellent books about their service have come out in recent years.  These include Jeffrey T. Sammons and John T. Morrow, Jr.’s Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality, and Chad L. Williams’ Torchbearers of Democracy:  African American Soldiers in the World War I Era.

Also consider the online exhibit of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, Make Way for Democracy!

Recently I became familiar with Clemmie C. Parks of Fort Scott.  If there seems to be something familiar about the name, perhaps it’s because he was the older brother–by eighteen years–of the photographer / author / film director Gordon Parks.  Clemmie was born in Fort Scott on April 15,1894, and after military service, appears to have been quite active in the community.

On his eighteenth birthday in 1912, he and three other young men enlisted in the Army.  He was assigned to the regimental band of the 24th United States Infantry–one of the Buffalo Soldiers regiments–and served for three years, being honorably discharged on his twenty-first birthday in 1915 with the rank of sergeant.  That becomes an important factor in later events.

Parks entered Officers’ Training Camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, on June 4, 1917.  This was a camp specifically for African Americans, and those who took part were either college graduates or had been or were non-commissioned officers in one of the Buffalo Soldiers regiments.  His being a sergeant in the 24th Infantry was his ticket into this camp.

He came out of the camp commissioned a 1st Lieutenant.  He was first assigned to Company K of the 365th Infantry, 92nd Division, then to the 317th Infantry.  Finally he was transferred to the 372nd Infantry, 93rd Division, and with this regiment he was deployed to France.  He was gassed at St. Mihiel and the Argonne; one source suggests he was gassed three additional times.

He wrote letters home to family and friends, and some of these were printed in the Fort Scott Daily Monitor, and they expressed his opinions.  One sentence reflects the attitude of the French toward the African American soldier.  In a letter published October 1, 1918, he wrote:  ” The scenery of France is great and the French treat us so fine that many will never return home.”

In another letter published on February 6, 1919, Parks gave credit to the women on the home front that did their part when the men were overseas.  He suggested:  “Then why not start a movement to have erected, say at our capitol, some form of memorial to our women, where grateful America may kneel at a shrine to the greatest soldiers in the world? . . . May god bless the noble women of America and a grateful nation do them honor.”

Returning to Fort Scott, he quickly took his place i n the community.  He became president of the A.M.E. Literary Society.  He organized and served as commander of the Joseph Thompson Post 179 of the American Legion, a post for the African American veterans of Fort Scott.  He took charge of the dining room at the Elks club, placing notices in the paper encouraging people to try it out.

Through the 1930s Parks remained active, particularly with musical groups.  He directed choruses, including the Modern Male Chorus with 30 voices.  He also directed the Federal Recreation Colored Chorus, which appears to have been funded through the Work Projects Administration.  He also presided over the Parent Teachers Association at Fort Scott’s Plaza School.
In 1943 Parks moved to Wichita to work at a government war plant.  He remained at Wichita, but always claimed Fort Scott as home.  He died June 24, 1983, and was buried at the Fort Scott National Cemetery.



Blair Tarr is the Museum Curator of the Kansas State Historical Society. He oversees the three-dimensional collections of the Society, but has special interests in the Civil War, Wichita-made Valentine diners, and Leavenworth's Abernathy Furniture. In the last few years he has also done a lot of cramming on The Great War. He is a past president of the Kansas Museums Association and the Civil War Round Tables of both Kansas City and Eastern Kansas. He is currently a board member of the Heritage League of Greater Kansas City.