It was a single gravestone that prompted Carolyn Warren Bessellieu’s sometimes challenging, sometimes emotional but satisfying quest for African American World War I (WWI) service information. The Two Rivers Heritage Foundation chairman of African American History recounted her conversation with President Betty Dunn.
Bessellieu said, “Betty had come across an unmarked African American cemetery and noticed a headstone of a WWI veteran. She asked if I could find out anything about him. His name was Tobie Harris. My great-uncle Holiday Bennett use to tell me many stories of World War II. I was fascinated to see what I could find on those who served in WWI.”
The enslavement of Africans and their American-born progeny has made African American genealogical searches difficult but not impossible.
Bessellieu said, “I never start research with doubt about how hard the task will be. I immediately started reading, researching as though it was impossible to fail.”
She used several free sites beginning with the world’s largest genealogical library, the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints as well as RootsWeb which has local information.
Bessellieu said, “Grimes County has a genealogical site there that is excellent, such as a list of the cemeteries and their inventory, the 1870 census and much more. The Veterans Administration info is on the Latter-day Saints’ site. You can print the enrollment sheets and the records of service.”
Bessellieu’s biggest challenge was the sheer number of names of African American men who registered.
She said, “I had to check each one to see if they actually enlisted and served. Many did not. I think this might confuse some people researching family histories. They see a relative who registered and assume they actually enlisted. I had to find the records to back up their enlistment and time served.”
Enlistment records contained information about where they registered, enlistment camp, place of birth, age, rank, service, where they served, discharge dates and state of health at discharge.
Bessellieu’s research led to a personal discovery. She said, “I found my great-great grandmother Emmaline had three sons. All three brothers, Shedrick, Robert and Jake Linton, served at the same time in WWI.”
As did the Warrens on her father’s side.
“Stories told speak for themselves”
Bessellieu said, “There were many African Americans who went to war for America without hesitation. My Great Uncle Holiday served in WWII and had many stories. The war was all he talked about. They were treated better overseas than they were in their own country which they were fighting to protect. That was hard to read and hear but the stories told speak for themselves.”
Enlistees at Camp Travis in San Antonio came from Oklahoma and Texas and included Grimes Countians. It was in a history of Camp Travis that Bessellieu found a motto of WWI African Americans trained there - “We return from fighting. We return to fighting.”
Texas General Land Office archives noted 32,000 Texans among the 400,000 African American soldiers in WWI. On arrival at Camp Travis, they were given vaccinations, physicals and IQ tests but few were given rifles.
Bessellieu said, “Most information, data, and descriptions of their service affected me emotionally because many signed up to escape the life they were living with hopes of a stipend to take care of their families and serve their country - still trying to prove they were men and wanting to be recognized as such.”
She continued, “They had to fight at home to be recognized as men, and then once enlisted, they had to fight segregation and were not allowed to have a weapon or participate in combat. If they were sent to war, they were put on the line first to be killed. Searching their journey was very emotional and knowing some were family members reinforced the pain. I have nothing but admiration for these men.”
“Blessed and lucky finds”
According to Bessellieu, she suspended her project after identifying 23 Grimes County vets and while “it doesn’t sound like many,” genealogists know this represents a vast investment of time.
Bessellieu has contacted a few of “my blessed and lucky finds,” including the family of Pvt. Grady Pratt who served in France.
She said, “There is a beautiful older lady here named Ms. Lillie Mae Pratt. I was informed she had a photo of her father Grady Pratt who served in WWI. I found his military record as proof and contacted her. She said she had a photo but would not let it out of her sight. I had to bring her to my home to scan the photo. It is a beautiful photo of him, and I was touched by her admiration of him and protecting his legacy.”
Everybody has a story
Bessellieu said, “This project meant a lot to me because it involves recognition. It is not about me but those whose stories were never told. I feel compelled to be their voice. The contributions African American have made are limitless, unspoken and unappreciated. They have given much, excelled to the highest but still have yet to be recognized as excellent. Slavery does not define our race, when we have been here since the beginning of time. The contributions we have made in spite of the bondage on our ankles did not stop the progress of our minds. I am proud of my history; I am proud of their courage and strength.”
She continued, “Ask questions, read and research your family history. It doesn’t matter what color you are. Then and only then you will understand who you are. Everybody has a story, and a history to tell.”