Farewelling the Black Soldiers of Florida Who Won The Great War

[box type=”shadow”]Some of you may have seen on my Facebook page that I now have a hardcopy proof for my book, Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida. We are literally weeks and some minor copyediting away from launching.

In celebration, I want to post a little excerpt. If you like it, come over and join my Facebook page for Age of Barbarity.

What follows is my fictionalized account of the August 4, 1918, sendoff of 150 or so black draftees from Palatka and Putnam County into the U.S. Army. They would fight and mostly work in service of the national World War I effort. No detailed firsthand account of this event exists. But it happened. I’ve tried to imagine it through the eyes of a working-class soldier-to-be named Amos Mack, whom I envision as a logger. A real soldier named Amos Mack did leave Palatka on August 4 and served in the U.S. Army. He doesn’t have a story, but he deserves one. Here’s my best shot. Along the way, you get to meet Mary McLeod Bethune, who began her career in Palatka — after working in some domestic capacity for a white woman — and maintained close ties after leaving in 1904. I hope you enjoy:[/box]

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My best analysis of military service cards finds that at least 243 black men of Putnam County served in World War I. It’s likely an undercount. But it’s still very nearly half of the 514 total Putnam soldiers, sailors, and Marines that I identified. The call-up of 150-200 men in August 1918 accounted for the largest chunk of soldiers of any race mustered from Putnam County into service at one time.

This group included Amos Mack. My incarnation of Mack again hopped a log boat from Stokes Landing north to the Wilson Cypress complex and reported to the Draft Board, as ordered, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 1918.

Mack spent Saturday night at his home, sitting up late at night with his sister Retter, with whom he shared his wages and shack and outhouse. They lived just a few blocks from the train station on 11th Street where Mack and his fellow draftees would board several cars bound for Camp Devens.

“You scared?” Retter asked him, passing back a bottle of cheap, fortified wine she bought for them from a neighborhood bootlegger.

“Of what?” he asked, taking a drink of his own.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. It just seems like what I should ask you. I don’t what else.”

“It’s all right, sweetheart,” Amos said with a smile. “They ain’t gonna let us fight.”

“Yes, but you might get sick,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do for eating if you wasn’t around.”

“So I’m just a meal ticket, then?” he said smiling.

“You know what I mean, Amos.”

He kept smiling. “I know, baby. I’ll be fine.”

They fell asleep next to each other on the pallet that Retter generally used for herself when Amos worked up the river. The wisps of their words disappeared, in mid-conversation, into the drowsy dark of 3:30. And they slept heavily.

It was a rare day that Amos Mack did not need to get somewhere to answer to someone before 7 a.m. But on this Sunday, only church beckoned. Mt. Tabor Baptist was hosting a prayer breakfast for the soldiers at 7:30, with a service to follow and then a feast in the early afternoon. At 2:30, the whole of the congregation and soldiers-to-be would walk the few blocks from Mt. Tabor to Union Station, where the final processing would happen and the men would board their train north.

As he drifted off to sleep next to Retter, Amos knew he wasn’t making the prayer breakfast or the service. His parents were long dead, and he had no one to whom he owed a churchy obligation other than Retter. She didn’t want to wake up any more than he did. The feast sounded fun, though. Amos wanted to eat well before he sat on a train for hours on end. He didn’t expect much in the way of food service on a military transport full of 150 or more black soldiers.

Mack awoke to the touch of Retter’s hand on his cheek.

“It’s almost noon, Amos,” she said.

He opened his eyes slowly. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“I ain’t slept that good in all my years of living. What you put in that wine?”

Retter smiled. “Nothing. You was just sleepy.”

Amos walked outside while Retter changed into her white church dress. He splashed some cistern water on his face—and after looking around to see that no one saw—he briefly dropped his trousers and night shirt for a moment. He splashed more water on his chest and pits and crotch and gave them all a quick once-over with a prickly rag.

When Retter came out dressed, he walked back inside to don his churchgoing clothes, the same he wore to the mass meeting at Mt. Tabor just after the U.S. entered the war. They were the only Sunday clothes he owned, and Amos considered them appropriate to the occasion.

The rest of his work clothes and razors and what-not he had thrown into a croker sack, along with a copy of his burial insurance policy. He hoped someone would find it if he were killed. And he thought if he got sick, a copy of the policy would help him make arrangements before the end came. He did not tell Retter that he took the policy with him. But she knew where the other copy was at home.

By the time they arrived at Mt. Tabor, the sun was high and August hot. The service had let out and the exterior of the church sprawled with tables and heaps of food. Black-eyed peas, corn bread, greens, potatoes. Two big hams. It was a paradise of food, paid for by a collection taken by the Negro Men’s Business League of Palatka, of which George Ellison still served as chairman. Women from the Palatka chapter of the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs had worked since well before sunrise to prepare the sendoff banquet.

Everywhere streamers and bunting hung from trees and eaves and fences, as did neatly stenciled signs. “Germans Fear Negroes,” read one of them. Amos laughed to himself. So do Americans, he thought.

People sweating through their best suits clumped around men carrying or standing over travel bags. Mothers and fathers, sweethearts, brothers and sisters, they orbited the departing men, urging them to eat up and distracting themselves from thoughts of never seeing them again.

With his own bag easily identifying him as an inductee, Amos found himself shaking hands with a number of men and women he had never met. A bit of a loner, Amos had few close acquaintances, and most of them remained out at the Wilson Cypress work camp near Stokes Landing.

“Proud of you, son,” his new admirers said.

As he tried to work himself through the adulation to the food, Mack noticed a tall, burly woman. He did not recognize her, but she attracted the same type of attention as the soldiers-to-be. Her Sunday dress—and crown of a hat—gleamed expensively even from across the churchyard. Men and women vibrated in and out of like her presence like electrons. Mack seemed the only person who didn’t know her.

The woman’s path of activity intersected with Amos’ near the first table of food. She half-turned away from an elderly woman and almost directly into Amos’s face. Seeing his bag, her intense, round face immediately spread into a huge smile.

“And what is your name, son?”

“Amos Mack, ma’am,” he answered, instinctively deferring to her authority.

“Mr. Mack, it’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Mary McLeod Bethune.”

Suddenly, the woman’s social gravity made sense. This was an audience with the queen.

“Mrs. Bethune, of course. I’m…Amos Mack.”

Bethune smiled gently and clasped Mack’s left hand in both of hers.

“Right, I already said that. I’m happy to meet you, too, ma’am. Why…what you doing here, Miss Bethune?”

“I came to see you off and offer my respects.”

Mack smiled, with a hint of embarrassment. “You came all that way just to see us?”

“Mr. Mack, Palatka is part of my home. I lived here, began to teach here. You are going to Massachusetts and France for me. And for my country. And for those girls we teach. For all of us. Daytona is just an hour away. I wouldn’t be worth my salt if I didn’t get my big self here to show you my love and respect.”

Mack didn’t know what to say. “Well, thank you, ma’am.” He stared blankly at Bethune and then found his eyes nervously drifting to the pile of greens next to the ham on the table.

“I’m keeping you from eating, aren’t I, son?” Bethune said.

“Oh no, ma’am,” Amos said, embarrassed.

Bethune squeezed his hands. “It’s fine, Mr. Mack. Please go eat, and thank you for talking to me. My prayers and my admiration go with you.”

With that she let go and targeted the next man with a bag. Amos stood openmouthed for a moment and then moved to the head of the buffet line, where another well-dressed church lady handed him a plate and fork. Other ladies ladled and served massive portions of a seemingly endless collection of food, flicking away summer flies as best they could.

As he ate, Mack began to think that this was the best meal of his life. And by the time he finished, after a second helping, he felt so stuffed that it became physically unpleasant.

He sat down in the grass next to Retter, leaning his head onto his bag like a pillow.

“Damn, I’m full.”

Retter smiled. “Me too. That was good.”

“Just gonna close my eyes for a second.”

He awoke to whistles and clinking of glasses.

“Ok men,” came the voice of Rev. Thompson booming over the din. “It’s time to march. Time to move out. Come here to the front. We are going to let you lead us over to the train station.”

By now, there must have been 400 people in the churchyard. They parted like members of court for the 100 or so draftees that had come to the Mt. Tabor celebration. Amos, still sleepy and full, was one of the last men to walk to the head of the crowd. There he fell into the makeshift formation, lines of 10 men across, that the soldiers organized themselves into.

“Let’s hear it for our men,” Mack heard a voice shout.

A chaotic and thunderous cheer answered, and suddenly the mass—at once organized and disorganized—began to move. One of the soldiers in the front row held an American flag aloft. The red, white, blue flopped along with the motion of the soldiers in the windless still of August. The crowd formed a walking, undulating membrane on three sides of the marchers, taking care never to step in front of them. Families of the men outside of the formation gathered around their loved ones, talking, and weeping, and patting them on the back as the men sought to march in something approaching time.

The marching men themselves, even Amos, began to grunt rhythmically—growling something like “Hut” every second or so in time with the marching.

A small handful of boys, at the instruction of the church elders, ran ahead of the crowd to Reid Street, a prime thoroughfare through central Palatka which separated the church south of it from the train station northwest of it. They had the job of stopping traffic to let the soldiers and crowd cross. It was approaching later afternoon on a Sunday. There were few cars to stop. But they did stop—a total of four by the time the marchers reached the street. Each was driven by white men, and each, it seemed to Amos, blew a horn in honor.

As the crowd moved toward the train station, which sat in Palatka’s historically black neighborhood, other men and women began to join the joyous swirl around the marchers. By the time it reached the entry of Union Station, the Mt. Tabor crowd had grown to more than 500, with the men marching at its core maintaining reasonably good discipline and formation among the chaos.

Other black soldiers and onlookers, who had come to the station independently of the church, exploded in cheers and rushed to join their fellows and the arriving crowd. That caused considerable frustration among the military agents and clerks arrayed at various portable desks to check off each man who would board the train. But there wasn’t much they could do about it.

For many of the dozens of white people who had come to see off the departing soldiers, this was the largest crowd of blacks they’d ever seen.

One of the white women, Lizzie Howell, whose husband R.C. Howell owned the Howell Theater, noticed Mary McLeod Bethune among the hubbub and rushed to greet her one-time employee. She had long considered it a source of great pride that her former maid and nanny had become a leader of the negroes. But they had not spoken in years.

“Mary,” she called. “Mary, it’s so good to see you.”

Bethune, who towered above Mrs. Howell, remembered all the hours spent scrubbing while she longed to teach. She greeted her old mistress formally. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry, do I know you?”

Lizzie’s face fell. “It’s Mrs. Howell. Elizabeth Howell. You worked for me.”

“Oh, of course. Yes, Mrs. Howell. I apologize. That was so long ago. But you have not aged a day.”

Howell still smarted. “Thank you,” she said, softly. “I wanted to tell you how proud we are of you.”

Bethune smiled broadly. “Thank you, ma’am. But thank you even more for coming out to pay respect to our brave men and bid them good luck.”

“Of course,” Mrs. Howell said with a smile, recognizing that her old washwoman had just high-hatted her and ended their conversation. She nodded and slunk away sheepishly, with Mrs. Bethune’s insolent grin lingering in her imagination.

As Lizzie Howell walked away, dejectedly holding by her side a small American flag on a stick, she overheard the very pregnant Sophie Walton, speaking to her husband J.V. Walton. “That’s Mary Bethune,” she said. “What a lovely gesture.”

J.V. Walton [my great-grandfather] was the special magistrate, representing the federal government, who had helped overturn exemptions from service that some of these departing men might have otherwise enjoyed. He had a responsibility to attend their sendoff. And so did the Draft Board, consisting of Sheriff Peter Hagan, County Clerk R.J. Hancock, and County Physician Dr. H.A. Johnson.

Each man attended with his wife, as did a number of other prominent and not so prominent white Palatkans. Conspicuously absent were white clergymen. This was the Sabbath after all, and God didn’t want his flock to exert on such a day, even in the worthy support of negro soldiers. Or so they said in sending regrets to the Mt. Tabor organizers, who had invited some of them.

A few moments after the tumultuous arrival of the Mt. Tabor men, Sheriff Hagan conferred with Mrs. Bethune and Rev. Thompson. Together, they called the men back to order and lined them up to make final registration with the annoyed army clerks waiting in seats. They wedged away the families and friends, who waited a few feet away as the clerks verified each soldier.

Retter Mack embraced her brother. “I love you,” she said, on the edge of crying. “Come back to me soon.”

Not long after that, the train that would transport the men to Massachusetts pulled into Union Station. Audible sounds of weeping from the crowd grew as the means of departure became real, and men actually began to walk onto the train. As they finished with the clerks, each man received a care package from the ladies of the Colored Women’s club. Each carried a sandwich and a small canteen of water for the long trip.

When Amos had finished with his clerk, he threw his bag over his shoulder and took hold of his bundle. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said. He looked back at Retter one last time. He then waved and then turned to walk to the train. He didn’t bother to look at anyone more important.

Inside, the passenger car was already crowded and stifling. It reeked of workmen in August. Mack longed for the train to move so that air would come through windows. But that wouldn’t happen for 30 minutes, long enough for sensation of misery to replace the thrill of marching and love from the crowd.

Finally, the men heard the brake release and the train begin to groan forward. About that time, a white man in uniform strode briskly into Amos’s car.

“Now listen here,” he said, standing squarely in the middle of the car, “let me tell you the rules, boys, how this ride’s gonna go.”

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No detailed record of the departure of Putnam black soldiers survives. What you read above is complete speculation grounded in the real relationships and names that did participate or might have participated. The Palatka News editions of that period have disappeared. The entire departure ceremony merited two paragraphs in the next Palatka Times-Herald weekly edition, and it’s not clear a reporter even attended.

The spare record of the sendoff given to 150 or more black men bears no resemblance to the precise and emotional account the newspapers provided for 18 white soldiers who had left nine months before.

The Times-Herald did provide this rather poignant sentence: “An immense crowd, both whites and colored, assembled and gave the departing soldiers to be a rousing sendoff.”

It did not elaborate further. The entire blurb contained fewer words than a brief about a vaudeville show and the announcement of my great uncle Bill Walton’s wounds, both of which shared space on the front page with dozens of black men departing for war.

The several hundred thousand black soldiers of the Great War both fought Germans and performed the brutal work that made the war effort possible and that white men wouldn’t do. They died for it, often horribly, from bullets, shells, and disease. Amos Mack himself, the real one, not the one I just imagined, died on October 28, 1918, in France, from the pandemic flu.

The workers, the Amos Macks of the war, buried or burned flu-ravaged corpses, chopped forests of wood, built cantonments, quarried stone, worked under shellfire to repair roads while singing, and unloaded troop and supply ships with names like Leviathan. I don’t know what this Amos Mack actually did. Pick a job. But you can bet he was formally commanded by white work gang bosses who felt contempt for him and that he generally worked hardest for the black corporals that provided the actual leadership on the ground. And at all times, the Army did what it could to prevent him from mingling with French women. Indeed, an official liaison document between the American and French commands urged the French government to impress upon its people the importance of segregating black soldiers and refraining from lavish praise of their performance. It asked French authorities “not to spoil the negroes.”

Forget spoiling them. No one has ever really thanked them. Vietnam has a wall. Those Palatka men of the Great War have an undated forgotten plaque. And they won. They came home to the Red Summer of 1919, the most vicious season of racial pogroms in our nation’s history.

Amos Mack seems to have left no children. Whatever he bequeathed went to his sister, Retter, and to a country readying to punish his race for thinking its patriotic sacrifice had earned it anything. There is no reparation for that.

So if you take nothing else away from my book, take respect for the men who died for a vision of this country that did not include them and wouldn’t for a very, very long time.