Berrien’s Black Doughboys: Camp Gordon Men

Camp Gordon Men from Berrien County, GA

During WWI, Berrien County sent its contingent of black soldiers to join the United States Army. While the Jim Crow Army would relegate many black soldiers to support roles, a few Berrien County men would fight in all-black combat units like the 370th Infantry “Black Devils” and the 367th Infantry “Buffalo Infantry.

Nationwide, more than 2.2 million black men were registered over the course of four draft registration calls, of which nearly 370,000 were drafted for induction into the Army. The draft was a lottery in which numbers written on pieces of paper (in red ink) were pulled from a bowl by the U.S. Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. Every number represented one registrant from each local board who would be called in for examination and if accepted, would be inducted into service.

In March of 1918, 86 black men in Berrien County received their orders of induction.  The orders instructed the men to report to the local draft board in Nashville, GA on April 2, 1918 for examination.

WWI Order of Induction P. M. G. O. Form 1028

WWI Order of Induction P. M. G. O. Form 1028

Along with the Order of Induction the men received written instructions on what to wear and what to pack. They were informed of the consequences of failing to report – a court-martial and possibly the death penalty.  Dire warnings notwithstanding, some twenty of the Berrien County men failed to report on April 2, 1918 as ordered.  According to WWI Historian Jennifer D. Keene, illiteracy prevented some men from complying with written induction orders.  “In many rural southern regions, the control that white landowners maintained over their black workforce influenced the workings of local draft boards. Some land owners withheld draft notices that arrived in the mail or refused to read them to their workers. When these workers failed to report, the government listed them as deserters. White planters subsequently gained both the advantage of their continued labor and the chance to collect a $50 reward from the government whenever they felt inclined to turn in these so-called deserters.”   A scandal over the reward for capture of deserters led to the dismissal of one Berrien County draft board member.

Form 1028A Instructions to Selected Men

Form 1028A Instructions to Selected Men

Important Notice to all Men Selected for Military Service and Ordered to
Report to a Local Board for Military Duty.

The day and hour specified on the Classification List of this Local Board, and on the order and notice of induction into military service which accompanies this notice for you to report to this Local Board for military duty, is the time that marks your actual obligation as a soldier of the United States.

Failure to report promptly at the hour and on the day named is a grave military offense, for which you may be court-martialed. Willful failure to report, with an intent to evade military service, constitutes desertion from the Army “of the United States, which in time of war is a capital offense.

Upon reporting to your Local Board, you will not need, and you should not bring with you, anything except hand baggage. You will not be permitted to take trunks or boxes with you on the train. You should take only the following articles: A pair of strong, comfortable shoes to relieve your feet from your new regulation marching shoes; not to exceed four extra suits of underclothing; not to exceed six extra pairs of socks; four face and two bath towels; a comb, a brush, a toothbrush, soap, tooth powder, razor, and shaving soap. It will add to your comfort to bring one woolen blanket, preferably of dark or neutral color. This blanket should be tightly rolled, the ends of the roll should be securely bound together, and the loop of the blanket thus formed slung from your left shoulder to your right hip.

You should wear rough, strong clothing and a flannel shirt, preferably an olive-drab shirt of the kind issued to soldiers.

Note.—Local Boards may have prepared, in the form of a rubber stamp, and stamp in below or on the back hereof any special instructions, such as a direction to request permission to eat and spend the last night at home, as it may desire to give.

On April 2, 1918 sixty-six African-American men from Berrien County, GA  reported to the draft board as ordered.  After passing examination, it appears the men were given permission to spend their last night at home.  On April 3, at Nashville, GA they boarded the Georgia & Florida train bound for Camp Gordon, near Atlanta.  The local draft board at Nashville, GA used Form 1029 PMGO, issued  by the Provost Marshall General’s Office, to document the entrainment of newly enlisted soldiers (images below). The forms include the draftee’s name, serial number, order number, date ordered to report, draft board, name of the mobilization camp, and the draftee’s occupation.

Statements from the Local Draft Board, Nashville, Berrien County, GA document African-American soldiers selected for the draft and entrained on April 3, 1918.

1918-4-2-berrien county-ga-wwi-inductions-1

1918-4-2-berrien county-ga-wwi-inductions-2

1918-4-2-berrien county-ga-wwi-inductions-3

1918-4-2-berrien county-ga-wwi-inductions-4

  1. Homer Lee Fordham, Alapaha, GA
  2. Dock Moore, Milltown, GA
  3. Wesley Myers, Bannockburn, GA
  4. John W. Faison, Ray City, GA
  5. Alexander Werkerson, Alapaha, GA
  6. Titus Griffin, Milltown, GA
  7. Willie Mullins, Alapaha, GA
  8. Joe Roberson, Ray City, GA
  9. Ben Cooper, Nashville, GA
  10. Collie Simons [Charlie Simmons?], Tifton, GA
  11. King Cooper, Nashville, GA
  12. Henry Mitchell Vaughn, Nashville, GA
  13. John Cleveland, Adel, GA
  14. Frank Mills, Milltown, GA
  15. Major Wilson, Adel, GA
  16. Charles J. Boggs, Ray City, GA
  17. Mack Leroy Cusack, Nashville, GA
  18. William Clarence, Sparks, GA
  19. Leroy McKinney, Milltow, GA
  20. Hilliard Brock, Nashville, GA
  21. Sam Gaines, Milltown, GA
  22. Marvin McArdle, Milltown, GA
  23. Tarba Bennett, Milltown, GA
  24. Elihu Hooker, Milltown, GA
  25. Joseph Williams, Adel, GA
  26. Garfield Baker, Ray City, GA
  27. Rommie Adams, Alapaha, GA
  28. Will Bell, Alapaha, GA
  29. Tom Sanders, Nashville, GA
  30. Thomas Howard, Ray City, GA
  31. Noah Schofield, Adel, GA
  32. Phane Jackson, Milltown, GA
  33. Elijah Walker, Hahira, GA
  34. Sam Bob, Alapaha, GA
  35. David Genrette, Ray City, GA
  36. Caleb Cooper, Nashville, GA
  37. Ethie Melvin, Milltown, GA
  38. Robert Jones, Ray City, GA
  39. Benjamin Greer, Lenox, GA
  40. Jerry Sheppard, Adel, GA
  41. Beamon Seymore, Adel, GA
  42. Dock Gunn, Nashville, GA
  43. Cleveland Sutton, Enigma, GA
  44. Willie Hutchinson, Adel, GA
  45. James Fullard, Alapaha, GA
  46. Arthur Bradshaw, Milltown, GA
  47. Charles Richerson, Cecil, GA
  48. Frank Jones, Bannockburn, GA
  49. Mose Flournoy, Adel, GA
  50. William Eddie Scruggs, Adel, GA
  51. Charley Stanford, Alapaha, GA
  52. Yancey Cowart, Enigma, GA
  53. Lazarus Burgess, Nashville, GA
  54. John Henry Williams, Alapaha, GA
  55. Grover Cleveland, Cecil, GA
  56. John Morris, Cecil, GA
  57. Isaac Flemming, Alapaha, GA
  58. David Pigford, Adel, GA
  59. Elzie Cooper, Nashville, GA
  60. Ezekiel Lavind, Adel, GA
  61. Snow Williams, Nashville, GA
  62. Peter Jones, Alapaha, GA
  63. Sidney Todd, Milltown, GA
  64. Ed Dupree, Milltown, GA
  65. James Givens, Alapaha, GA
  66. Nathaniel McClinton, Alapaha, GA

 

Camp Gordon historic marker, Dekalb County, GA

Camp Gordon historic marker, Dekalb County, GA

 

African-American troops at Camp Gordon, GA

African-American troops at Camp Gordon, GA

Camp Gordon was named in honor of Confederate General John Brown Gordon. After the war, he was a strong opponent of Reconstruction during the late 1860s. He served as a U.S. Senator from Georgia from 1873 to 1880, and again from 1891 to 1897. He also served as the 53rd Governor of Georgia from 1886 to 1890.  Gordon is cited as a prominent member of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan.

Like all southern military camps, those in Georgia operated under the segregation laws of Jim Crow. Federal prohibitions on black troops in combat meant that African American recruits trained and served in engineer service or labor battalions under white officers. -New Georgia Encyclopedia

Of the African American men who were drafted, 89 percent served in labor battalions or as dockworkers. The 42,000 men who did serve in combat were limited to the only two all-black combat regiments, the Ninety-Second and Ninety-Third Divisions. The camps were also segregated, as were most of the YMCA “Y-huts,” which served as places for leisure activities and often had camp libraries, stocked with the help of the ALA’s Library War Service  – American Library Association

Company_14_4th_Training_Battalion_Camp_Gordon_Georgia_September_18_1918_AfricanAmerican_troops

African-American training battalion with white officers at Camp Gordon, September 18, 1918

Camp Gordon, near Atlanta, was one of the largest training centers for Negro troops in the South, housing over 9,000 Georgia blacks by late 1917…Black troops there suffered the indignities common elsewhere, and the absence of any black commissioned officers increased their problems. Most black recruits were assigned to engineer or labor service battalions, where they were to perform tedious, often back-breaking tasks, loading and unloading cargo on both sides of the Atlantic. Since these battalions would have no black officer above the rank of corporal, Camp Gordon officials recruited a number of white sergeants, “specially and carefully selected as having had actual experience in charge of gangs of colored laborers.”  -John Dittmer, Historian

African-American Recruits receiving instruction from a white officer. Camp Gordon, Georgia., 03/04/1918, Image source: National Archives

African-American Recruits receiving instruction from a white officer. Camp Gordon, Georgia., 03/04/1918, Image source: National Archives

Segregation at the camp extended to recreational facilities, YMCA, library, hostess houses, and the soldiers clubs.  The War Camp Community Service Colored Soldiers’ Club of Atlanta, GA worked to bring books to African-American soldiers. The organization’s Secretary, Mr. Edward K. Nichols, writing to the American Library Association observed, “You are doubtless aware that throughout the South the public libraries are closed to the colored people. Hence every organization having in its power to extend library facilities to the colored people at large or any group of them has the opportunity of rendering a very needed and much appreciated service.” 

Colored Soldiers Club, Atlanta, GA

 

Camp Gordon, GA photo by E. Thompson. His title was "Negro soldier reading to boys who can't read. Camp Gordon, Ga. 1917-18" Library of Congress.

Camp Gordon, GA photo by E. Thompson. His title was “Negro soldier reading to boys who can’t read. Camp Gordon, Ga. 1917-18” Library of Congress.

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Turpentine in Wiregrass Georgia

Turpentine and naval stores industry became an economic engine for Ray’s Mill, Berrien County and the other counties of Wiregrass Georgia.

Turpentine Still in Thomas County, GA circa 1895

Turpentine Still in Thomas County, GA circa 1895

An  1881 news item sums up the Wiregrass workman’s appraisal of the original growth pine forests.

Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun, Jan. 15, 1881. Pg 3

— In regard to “The Turpentine Industry,” the Berrien county News says: “This comparatively new industry is attracting much attention in our vicinity.  The people of this section, who in a great measure, own the timber, have allowed it to lie idle and undeveloped, notwithstanding the turpentine is a great source of revenue.  This timber has stood upon the earth for centuries, and it may stand there as much longer, and the owners will derive no more benefit from it than from an equivalent sum of money locked up in a safe for the same length of time.”

As in other Wiregrass communities, turpentine and naval stores became major industries in Ray City, GA.  Robert S. Thigpen, a wealthy resident of Berrien County, GA,  owned a turpentine plant in Ray’s Mill.  The plant, sold in 1898 for $13,000, would have valued at more than $10 million in 2008 dollars.

Among  other Ray City and Berrien County residents who prospered in the industry was Walter “W.D.” Brown, who had a turpentine operation near Ray’s Mill in 1904. Wilson W. Fender  was in the turpentine business, as was Lorenzo D. Carter.  Arthur Shaw and brother-in-law, William Clements,  operated a turpentine still at Willacoochee, Georgia, Brothers Chester Shaw and Lacy Lester Shaw were also involved in the turpentine business.

John Whitford worked for one of the turpentine and naval stores concerns in the area.  His neighbor, Brass McKnight, was employed as “stiller” in the turpentine industry.  Another area turpentine barrel maker was William Watson.  Men like Jessie Norris, Elbert Thomas, John Fox, Levey Jones, Jack Jackson, Harrison McClain, Jessie Williams, Tom Thompson, Jim Stripling, George Taylor, and Daniel Holden and others worked on turpentine farms.  Many of these men may have worked one time or another for Lorenzo D. Carter, a naval stores operator and employer in Ray’s Mill (aka Ray City), GA in the early 1900s.

The firm of Sapp & Fender also conducted turpentine operations in Ray City.  David Asa Sapp was the manager; among his employees in 1917 were Leiland Scott, Si Randolph, Elisha  Graham, George Greene, James Hodges, Ellis Jenkins, Barney Johnson, John Jones, Robert Jones, Ruther Golden Jones, Ira Little, Will Mitchell, John Sam Robinson, Ernest Singleton, Arthur Stripling, Anderson Walker, John Waters, James Wooten, Turner Wooten, Willie Barnes, Arlie Brown and Handy Simpson. The company chauffeur was Henry Groover Page.

The Y. F. Carter Naval Stores concern began operation in Ray City about 1916 and by the 1930s it was the largest firm in the community, where approximately fifty men were employed.  This firm operated over ten crops of boxes, a “crop” consisting of 10,000 trees.  The turpentine rights for these trees were typically leased from local land owners..

Disputes over valuable lumber and turpentine rights sometimes ended up in court.  One such case was that of Shaw v. W.L.  Fender et. al., where the timber on land owned by Francis Marion Shaw  was being worked for turpentine  operations. William Lon Fender was a local turpentine man and in 1905 was treasurer of the South Georgia Turpentine Operators’  Association.

Collecting the turpentine was hard and sometimes dangerous work. The working conditions could be grueling and the pay was  meager.  But the vast, untapped pine forests of the Wiregrass provided abundant employment opportunities for those who could take it.  African-Americans, many sons of former slaves, came to the area to find work in the turpentine and sawmill operations. Other turpentine woodsmen, like Benjamin F. Morehead and Lewis Hudson, were born and raised in the local area of Ray’s Mill, Georgia.

Fire was a constant threat where the highly combustible turpentine rosin was present.  The March 22, 1905 Pensacola Journal related the disparaging ruminations of a Valdosta turpentine man about the low paid laborers and their risky work.

…I sent a negro with a team into the wood some time ago to haul drippings and the negro let the  wagon burn up, even the tongue. He was ‘totin’ the rosin up in a bucket, and I guess threw a match down on a dead pine top. When he looked around the pine top was in a blaze and the rosin-smeared wagon was catching. The negro tried to put it out and finally started the team toward a cypress pond but the wheel became locked against a tree and it was all the darkey could do to save the mules.”

As in other industries, African-American turpentine workers at the turn of the 19th century were subject to poor treatment by their employers. Violence could be the result. One such case was that of Joe Willmont.  Willmont was arrested while working turpentine at Ray’s Mill in May of 1911, where he was hiding out under the alias Will Nelson. Willmont/Nelson had arrived in Ray’s Mill after fleeing an alleged double murder at the West Bay Naval Stores Company in West Bay, Florida.  The killings occurred when supervisors at the Florida company attempted to ‘whip’ Willmont for quitting the company.

According to A. P. Malone, author of Piney Woods Farmers 1850-1900: Jeffersonian Yeomen in an Age of Expanding Commercialism, most black laborers who came to the Wiregrass to work in the sawmill and turpentine operations did not acquire real estate here.  Many lived in turpentine or sawmill “camps,” and moved on to other areas after the available timberlands had been exhausted.  “However, some – perhaps as many as one-fourth – married locally and stayed in the area, often because they had some skills which enabled them to purchase town or farm property. Examples in Berrien County of such individuals are Neil Shipman, Cap Taylor, and Nathan Bridges.”

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