Dear Professor Gates:
I’m trying to find out if my grandfather and great-uncles fought in World War I and if they were assigned to the French army. My grandfather was Webb A. Owens, born in 1899 in McComb, Miss.; his brother Wallace Owens was born in 1896 in McComb, Miss.; his brother Philip Demoulin was born in New Roads, La., on March 19, 1897. Any information will be appreciated. —P.J. Owens
Yours is a fitting question during a week that includes America’s annual celebration of its veterans. As a 2003 article in the Army Historical Foundation’s On Point magazine noted, during World War I, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th cavalries and the 24th and 25th infantries. The troops in them, however, were not being used in combat roles; many were, instead, relegated to labor roles in U.S.-controlled territories.
Mounting pressure within the black community for the chance to prove their bravery led to the creation of two African-American divisions, the 92nd and 93rd, which were deployed to serve with the French overseas. The best-known regiment of the 93rd Division was the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. As covered on The Root in 2013 in the column 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, the regiment’s soldiers fought at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood in France, spending 191 days in combat—longer than any other American unit in World War I.
The Hellfighters’ valor was celebrated in a parade up New York City’s Fifth Avenue on Feb. 17, 1919, which was attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans of all races. The acclaim was remarkable, given that black men in uniform were often reviled and distrusted, to the point of being lynched.
Many in the crowd would have been eager to see a famed war hero among the 3,000 returning troops being feted that day in New York City. Pvt. Henry Johnson of Albany, N.Y., had been honored with France’s Croix de Guerre in 1918; 97 years later, he would receive a posthumous Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama.
Did your relatives serve in World War I, and were they among those assigned to the 92nd or 93rd divisions?
What the Draft Cards Reveal
When you are researching family members who may have served in World War I, often the best place to begin your research is with the most easily accessible digitized collections. This is because you want to know as much as possible before attempting to obtain official records, which are often in less accessible archives or libraries.
With that in mind, we checked Ancestry.com’s database U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 (subscription required), which provides information concerning the residence, birth, employment and appearance of an individual, as well as, occasionally, whether or not he was claiming exemption from service for any reason. (FamilySearch has a free version of the database.)
We found that Webb Albert Owens, while born in Mississippi, registered for the draft in East Chicago, Ind. His registration card states that he was born Jan. 4, 1899, and his nearest relative was his mother, Mary Owens, of McComb, Miss. The teen was working as a laborer at the International Lead Refining Co. in East Chicago, which may have contributed to his relocation.
His brother, Wallace Owens, also left a draft-registration card from June 5, 1918, which lists his date of birth as Sept. 30, 1896, in McComb. His card includes the standard torn lower-left corner, which was meant to designate the enlistee as African American (and therefore to be segregated), an element that was missing from Webb A. Owens’ card.
Philip Demoulin does not appear to have a registration card, but he does have an indexed service record in the collection U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, available via Fold3. It states that he enlisted April 27, 1918, and was released June 24, 1919.
State and Local Records Reveal More
Ancestry.com offers another useful database for those researching World War I records: U.S. Lists of Men Ordered to Report to Local Board for Military Duty, 1917-1918. Using it, we learned that Wallace Owens reported for duty at Camp Shelby in Pike, Miss., Sept. 1, 1918. Keep in mind that this database consists of only a list of names and the camps to which they reported, which may make it difficult to identify your correct ancestor if he had a common name. If you encounter this situation, don’t forget to use name variations in your search.
State archives and libraries often have their own increasingly expanding online databases that can provide leads. For example, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History provides in its digital collections the database Mississippi World War I Statement of Service Cards and Indices, which contains records from Mississippi’s Veterans Affairs Board regarding the former service of some of the state’s veterans. They do not appear to be searchable; but fortunately, as part of the collection, MDAH has digitized the master index, which includes Wallace Owens of McComb, Pike, Miss., with his serial number: 4300576. The service cards are arranged alphabetically, which leads to the discovery of his card. The card lists his assignments, but abbreviated, so you might have to do some further research to determine how they correspond to certain regiments and locations.
It appears that Wallace Owens first served in the 164th Department Brigade until October 1918 and then served in Company K of the 65th Pioneer Infantry until he was honorably discharged Dec. 17, 1918. You will need to do more specifically focused research into these units to determine where and how he served.
National Records Can Be Tricky but Useful
Unfortunately, most official service records for World War I have not been digitized and made available online. Instead they are housed at the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives in St. Louis. In order to access these records, you would either have to visit the NPRC research room or request records remotely through email or postal mail. There are certain restrictions associated with requesting service records, but because of the length of time that has passed since World War I, those records are likely more readily attainable.
Here’s where the records you’ve collected thus far in more easily available databases will come in handy. Hopefully they’ll have given you all of the required information listed on the service request page. If not, contact the National Archives directly and determine if what you do have will be enough for a preliminary search, which might open up future avenues.
Keep in mind, however, that there was a devastating fire at the archives in the 1970s, which destroyed a number of service records from World War I and which might complicate your efforts. An explanation of the records affected by this fire and the process of acquiring those documents that have survived can be found through FamilySearch’s United States World War I Service Records informational page.
If you are able to determine the unit or division in which Webb A. Owens and Philip Demoulin served through your efforts and the collections at the NPRC, you will likely then be able to easily determine whether or not they were assigned to fight with the French army. In the case of Wallace Owens, whose service history we gathered from his veterans card, it does not appear that he was assigned to those units that served with the French.
Even so, to better understand your forebears’ service in World War I and the environment they faced, we suggest that you look at contemporary African-American and mainstream newspaper accounts, as well as the following resources:
* “World War I,” by Cary D. Wintz, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Paul Finkelman
* “African-American Soldiers in World War I: The 92nd and 93rd Divisions,” National Endowment for the Humanities
* “Fighting for Respect,” by Jami Bryan, On Point magazine, Army Historical Foundation
* “Who Were the Harlem Hellfighters?” by Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root
* “Black World War I Hero Finally Gets Full Recognition for His Valor,” by Nigel Roberts, The Root
* “Records of Military Agencies Relating to African Americans From the Post-World War I Period to the Korean War“ (pdf), National Archives
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Anna L. Todd, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.