13 Nov Black Atlanta and the Great War
With the centennial this week of the armistice that brought World War I to an end, many are turning their eyes to the fields of Europe where the War’s battles were fought in the trenches. But closer to home, we in Atlanta need only look to Oakland Cemetery to remember our city’s connection to the Great War. As Franklin M. Garrett declared in Atlanta Environs, “Old Oakland is Atlanta’s most tangible link between the past and the present.”1 Examining the lives of individuals buried at the downtown site provides a window onto the families, institutions, and social forces that have shaped Georgia’s capital since the cemetery opened in 1850 – including World War I. Over the past year the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) has partnered with the nonprofit Historic Oakland Foundation to create interactive online exhibitions to highlight and contextualize historically notable subsets of Oakland residents. To mark the WWI centennial and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s (ASAALH) 2018 National Black History Month theme of “African Americans in Times of War,” we chose to begin with the ten African American World War I veterans who are buried in the cemetery’s African American Burial Ground. These veterans are the subjects of our initial exhibit: “As a Laborer, a Fighter, an Officer, and a Man”: African American WWI Veterans Buried at Oakland.
This exhibit illuminates the lives behind the names on those tombstones via original genealogical research by Oakland Cemetery historian D. L. Henderson and provides users with the larger historical context in which these individuals lived – and served in the military – via a series of entries on the African American experience of WWI by Pellom McDaniels, the curator of African American collections at Emory’s Rose Library.2 Users can access this information through a map of the cemetery itself, as seen below, in which they can click on highlighted graves to learn more about the specific veterans buried at Oakland, or read entries on the larger historical context via the menu on the left.
Many of these ten veterans’ experiences of the “Great War” were shared by African American soldiers across the country – from their experience of segregated military service to the new opportunities offered by the Colored Officers Training Camp at Fort Des Moines for some of them. Yet examining these specific veterans buried at Oakland also reveals important connections between WWI and African American life in Atlanta. In some cases, those connections pre-dated the war, as in the case of Pvt. Olin Wimby, an Atlanta native who had been a porter for the local Daniel Brothers company as well as a member of the First Congregational Church before he died of pneumonia in France in October 1918. Or, as in the case of the brothers Christopher and Hugh Wimbish, who had both attended Atlanta University before enrolling in the Colored Officers Training Camp at Fort Des Moines and eventually attaining the rank of 1st and 2nd Lt. respectively in the 366th and 368th regiments of the all-black 92nd Combat Division. In addition to furnishing a substantial number of commissioned officers like the Wimbys, in the summer of 1918 Atlanta University hosted the “Army School of Mechanics” trainings for colored soldiers. Along with Morehouse College, Atlanta University would play host to a unit of the Student Army Training Corps (the precursor to the modern day ROTC) beginning in the fall of 1918.3
Other African American WWI veterans buried at Oakland were not natives of the Gate City but relocated to Atlanta after the war. The stories of these veterans also tell us about African American life in Atlanta as many were attracted to the city by some of the very same black institutions and the opportunities they afforded. For example, after finishing his education at Brown University after the war, Virginia-born Pvt. Maynard J. Wartman moved to Atlanta to teach chemistry at Morehouse College. Wartman subsequently became an insurance agent for the famed Atlanta Life Insurance Company on Auburn Avenue, then known as “richest negro street in the World.”
The post-war lives of some of the veterans buried at Oakland also highlight the role that veterans played in changing the racial dynamics of politics in Atlanta and across the United States.4 For example, following a court battle to secure the very right to qualify for election, Pvt. Rod Harris ran for Atlanta’s City Executive Committee in 1953. Harris lost after an intra-racial controversy in which another African American candidate entered the election after Harris had already been endorsed by the Atlanta Daily World.5 Yet that same year, Rufus E. Clement was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education, marking the first time since Reconstruction that an African American in Atlanta had run for office and won.6 And Christopher (C.C.) Wimbish, who had relocated to Chicago after the war to pursue a law degree at Northwestern University, subsequently ran and was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1942, becoming one of just twenty-one African Americans elected to the Illinois General Assembly from 1877 to 1943.7
Through their experiences in business, education, and politics as civilians, as well as through their military service, the ten African American WWI veterans who are buried at Oakland and profiled in “As a Laborer, a Fighter, an Officer, and a Man,” illustrate the ways cemeteries tell the stories of their cities. We hope this website contributes to greater public understanding of the role that the war played in the interconnected histories of Oakland Cemetery and Atlanta’s African American community. Moreover, we hope this exhibition will serve as a model for future digital exhibits that use the cemetery and its permanent residents as a lens through which to explore Atlanta’s history, and its connections to national and international events.
Bransford, Steve and Adam P. Newman. “Black Atlanta and the Great War: Remembering Oakland Cemetery’s African American World War I Veterans.” Atlanta Studies. November 12, 2018. https://doi.org/10.18737/atls20181112
- Franklin M. Garrett, Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and Events, Vol. 1 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969).
- McDaniels adapted these contextual entries from the chapter on African American soldiers that he wrote for 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- “Colored Students Get Army Training At Local Schools,” Atlanta Constitution, Sept. 12, 1918: 9; “Students’ Army Training Corps,” Atlanta Independent, Sep 28, 1918: 2, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=FFZcAAAAIBAJ&sjid=TVYNAAAAIBAJ&pg=6148%2C4681704.
- For more on this topic, see the chapter: “‘Close Ranks’: World War I as a Crucible for Black Solidarity, 1913-1919,” in Jay Winston Driskell Jr.’s Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).
- “3 More Negroes Qualify for Atlanta Elections” Jet, May 14, 1953: 6, https://books.google.com/books?id=skIDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA6&dq=rod%20harris&pg=PA6#v=onepage&q&f=false; “A Principle Is Involved,” Atlanta Daily World, May 13, 1953.
- “Clement Wins Post on Board,” Atlanta Daily World, May 14, 1953.
- Erma Brooks Williams. Political Empowerment of Illinois’ African-American State Lawmakers from 1877 to 2005. (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2008).