Fighting for Freedom
The Robert C, Byrd Center featured “Fighting for Freedom: Jefferson County African-Americans in World War I” Friday morning and afternoon.
Along with highlighting speakers from across the East Coast, the event honored the life and legacy of James Alvin Tolbert of Charles Town, who was the secretary and one of the four founding members of the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society. Fellow founders George Rutherford and Jim Taylor presented a plaque in recognition of James’ service to the local African American community to James’ wife, Shirley Tolbert, and one of his three sons, Charles Town Council Member Michael Tolbert.
“A lot of people say the modern civil rights movement started with World War II veterans. We say it started with the World War I veterans,” said Taylor, who spoke on a panel with fellow Korean War veteran Rutherford and Susannah Buckles, the daughter of the now-deceased, last living World War I U.S. military veteran, Frank Buckles.
“When these veterans got discharged, they came back to Jefferson County and got busy, Taylor said, mentioning the veterans heavily influenced the community, by pressuring the school board to build schools for African Americans, developing several African American communities throughout the Eastern Panhandle and encouraging their children to learn from their education.
World War I reenactor Algernon Ward, of Trenton, New Jersey, said the World War I veterans in his life influenced his future decision to pursue a career in science during his discussion, “The Harlem Hellfighters (369th U.S. Army Regiment) & Other All-Black Regiments of the 92nd and 93rd U.S. Army Divisions of WWI and Contemporary Social Conditions.”
According to Ward, when African American soldiers were stationed in France during World War I, they discovered what the world could be like without segregation. Many of these soldiers were frustrated when they returned home after the war was over, and were forced to adapt back to a life of segregation as soon as they reached the gangplank in New York City, which required African Americans to use a separate gangplank from their fellow travelers.
Ward said the freedom they experienced overseas gave them the vision and strength to build the foundation for the civil rights movement — a fact to which the morning’s feature speaker, author and Duke University professor Adriane Lentz-Smith, agreed.
“We tend to talk about the civil rights’ struggle without understanding that it’s the result of generations of effort. There have been people who persevered in spite of everything, as a result of their experiences during World War I,” Lentz-Smith said. “We need to recognize the importance of the first World War, both to the broader narrative of the civil rights movement, but also to the story of American democracy.”
Lentz-Smith is frustrated by the current U.S. education system, which often teaches African American history separately from American history. Although she personally teaches classes focusing on African American history and civil rights on the collegiate level, Lentz-Smith believes primary and secondary educators need to teach all facets of American history together.
“I hope that these discussions will pull people more together by helping them understand each other. We’ve been separated so long, black and white, that we don’t know each other. But I have all the confidence in the world that people will come together and educate younger generations about our nation’s history — what I saw today was an encouraging development towards that goal,” said event organizer Donna Northouse.