Remembering World War I's African-American Soldiers

Mar 8, 2017

A young black man from Glendale, whose remains lay in Springfield Township's Beech Grove Cemetery, is a symbol of how the contributions of African-American soldiers in World War I were nearly forgotten.

Ludlow Luther, killed in France during the war, was saved from obscurity by an unlikely source - a high school social sciences teacher and his students from Washington Court House. 

Now, with the centennial of the U.S. involvement in that "War To End All Wars" approaching on April 6, there are others trying to keep that memory alive.

Luther, born and raised in Glendale, was only 23 years old on July 15, 1918 when he was killed in action in the Champagne-Mame campaign in France. He drove a wagon and served with the 369th Regiment, the famed and highly-decorated "Harlem Hellfighters," made up of African-American soldiers from many states.

In 1921, Luther's remains were returned home and buried in Beech Grove.

The remains of this man who gave his life for his country were in an unmarked grave until 2013 when help came from an unexpected source to right that wrong.

Paul LaRue, now retired but then a social sciences teacher at Washington Court House High School, inspired his students to take part in an extensive search for the final resting places of African-American soldiers who served in the Civil War and World War I.

Their work brought them to Beech Grove, where at least a dozen African-American veterans of World War I are buried. All but Luther died after the war.

Carl Westmoreland, the senior historian at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, invited LaRue and his students to the cemetery on Fleming Road in 2012 and 2013. Many of Westmoreland's relatives are buried there, including a great-uncle, Nevel Walker, who served in World War I.

"My students were shocked that there was a soldier killed in action in an unmarked grave,'' said LaRue, who is now a member of Ohio's World War I Centennial Commission. "They were determined to find him and honor him."

LaRue and Westmoreland walk through Beech Grove Cemetery.
Credit Michael E. Keating.

They had to track the location of Luther's burial site using old Works Progress Administration maps from the 1930s. They found the exact spot.

And they did the research to document Luther's service and petition the Department of Veterans Affairs for the military gravestone to which every veteran is entitled. It was difficult because they were not related to Luther, but they succeeded; and, in the Spring of 2013, they did the hard physical work of placing Luther's headstone in the ground.

WPA map used by students to locate unmarked graves.
Credit Michael E. Keating.

LaRue's students did the same with other African-American veterans who died long after the war, but whose headstones were either missing, broken or unreadable - Granuel R. McKinney, Leslie Boggs, and George Brown, among others.  

The students did their work under the watchful and admiring eyes of Westmoreland, who would talk to the young people about the history of African-American participation in World War I and other wars.

On a chilly morning recently, LaRue and Westmoreland – who have become the best of friends – came to Beech Grove to look over the World War I graves. Westmoreland paused, removed his hat, and bowed his head when he came to the Walker family's burial plot – his family on his mother's side.  

Westmoreland is full of praise for LaRue and gratitude to his students for what these small-town high school students have done to preserve this piece of African-American history.

"These kids who did this are what America needs,'' Westmoreland said. "They were dealing with families who weren't like them."

What happened at Beech Grove, Westmoreland said, gives him hope for the future.

"American youth came together here to work on something we all can relate to – the loss of a loved one,'' Westmoreland said. "With that kind of interaction, it makes me think we have a society that is going to live."

The black men who served in World War I, LaRue said, "are the most largely ignored group of African-American veterans of any era."

LaRue said no one knows how many from Ohio served, although the state as a whole had 163,000 serving in the war.

Gravestone of Nevel Walker, great-uncle of Carl Westmoreland.
Credit Michael E. Keating.

Nationwide, there were about 400,000 African-Americans who served in uniform by the time the armistice that ended the war was signed on Nov. 11, 1918 – at 11 a.m. on the 11th hour of the 11th month.

The African-Americans, LaRue said, served primarily in the Army's 92nd and 93rd Divisions, with about 200,000 being shipped overseas. About 42,000 of those served in combat units, although not all of them saw combat.

"About 12 percent ended up in combat; and the other 88 percent ended up in support services – driving wagons, clearing bodies off the battlefields, doing non-combat work; and they often did that work under enemy fire,'' LaRue said. "This was largely because of the prejudice and the segregation of the time. 

"When you study it, you find that somehow the African-American soldiers in World War I were treated with far less respect that the African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War,'' LaRue said. 

The American army had little use for the black soldiers as fighting men, but their French allies – who were strapped for manpower – welcomed them. Two all-black units, the 371st and 372nd regiments became part of the French 157th Division.

The 372nd, in particular, found itself in fierce combat – sometimes hand to hand combat.

William Chenault, a Cincinnatian and soldier of the 372nd, was killed in action Oct. 2, 1918 – only about five weeks before the war ended. LaRue found a newspaper article by war correspondent Ralph Tyler that praised Chenault's bravery in combat.

Chenault was buried at the American cemetery at Meuse-Argonne in France and remains there still.

"He was quite a soldier,'' LaRue said. "He showed real gallantry. It's kind of a sad irony that he was killed so close to the end of the war."

According to LaRue's research, 173 soldiers of the 372nd received the Croix de Guerre. France's highest military honor, or the Distinguished Service Cross. Corp. Freddie Stowers of South Carolina received the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1991.

It was Ludlow Luther's 369th Regiment – the "Harlem Hellfighters" – which was the first African-American unit to arrive in France.

"They were the first to hit the field; they were the longest in combat; and they were highly decorated,'' LaRue said.

LaRue, as a member of Ohio's centennial commission, has turned his research and the work of his former students into lesson plans on the role of African-Americans in World War I for teachers around the state.

One of the lesson plans is about Homer Lawson, a "Harlem Hellfighter" from Washington Court House, who died in combat in France. In his home town, the American Legion Post is named in his honor. Another lesson plan looks at the role African-Americans played in the war, both in and out of combat. 

LaRue's students placing a headstone in 2013.
Credit Paul LaRue

"We're excited to get resources out to teachers,'' said LaRue. "Teachers are incredibly busy and they have so much on their plates.

"We want to get these resources out to them at no cost,'' he said. "And they are also designed to be done in a day because teachers have a lot to teach and not a lot of time to do it."

LaRue said he is glad to be able to help Ohio document all aspects of its participation in World War I.

"But I'm proud that we started by looking at the African-American experience and looking at diversity,'' LaRue said. "And I'm proud of the fact that, at the root of that, was the hard work of my students.

"They knew that men like Ludlow Luther, who gave their lives for this country, deserved to be buried with respect."