Local researchers gather WWI African-American history

newspaperOn the eve of the Civil War, the African-American population of Staunton and Augusta County stood at about 20 percent. In 1865, when Staunton became the headquarters for the Freedmen’s Bureau in the aftermath of the war, those population figures increased.

Today the black population of the county is just over four percent, while the percentage in Staunton is 12 percent and 10 percent in Waynesboro. In between then and now many social factors caused a dramatic drop downward and today’s relatively small numbers sometimes make us forget the rich African-American history of our area. Luckily two local historians are now engaged in an important project to document the story of our black veterans a century ago in World War I.

In November of this year, America will commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended the world’s first global war. It was supposed to be the war that ended all wars and would make the world safe for democracy. Today we know better, but much of our collective memory of that war has been eclipsed by WWII. In order that we not forget, a number of area civic groups, businesses, and historical groups have been working for much of this year to plan a series of events and projects to help remember the area’s involvement in World War I.

Earlier this year, Laten Bechtel and Melissa Patrick, under the sponsorship of the Augusta County Historical Society, decided that they would document all of the area African-Americans who served in the armed forces during the war (1917-1918). They readily admit that they started with a blank slate, not knowing what they would uncover. The results so far have been stunning to say the least and they are now asking the community to help with their work. In just over four months they have already documented about 400  veterans from the Great War and pieced together some amazing stories of service and valor.

But they know that they have probably only touched the tip of the iceberg. That is why they and the historical society are reaching out to the African-American community during three days of historical information gathering at the three local public libraries. If area folks have African-American ancestors who served in the military during WWI, Melissa and Laten would like to talk to them, learn those stories, and scan photographs, medals, letters, and documents for the project. They would also like to share what they have learned about the men who have served.

WWI African-American History Gathering Events

  • Staunton Public Library: Tuesday June 19, 4-7 p.m. 2nd floor boardroom
  • Waynesboro Public Library: Thursday June 21, 4-6 p.m. downstairs meeting room
  • Augusta County Public Library (Fishersville) Friday June 22 1-3 p.m. downstairs conference room

For more information contact: Laten Bechtel at 885-1303 (lgbecht@verizon.net) or Melissa Patrick at 886-6731 (melissa.patrick78@gmail.com).

It is hoped that the three days of history gathering at the public libraries will bring a wealth of new information. Already they can draw a lot of information and conclusions from what they have discovered. Many of those from Augusta, Staunton, and Waynesboro were in the 92nd and 93rd Divisions. There were 9 or 10 men in the famed 369th Harlem Hellfighters, an infantry regiment that fought under French control. So far they have found that at least 11 of the men who served died as a result of the war and at least one – Richard Dodson – was killed in action. Eight or nine others were wounded or gassed. They have found five men who were officers and six men who enlisted instead of being drafted.

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