Uncovering African American heroism

Freddie Stowers grave marker
Freddie Stowers grave marker

The Dallas Examiner

Dr. Jeff Gusky, Dallas emergency room doctor, National Geographic photographer and explorer, has traveled the world knitting together scraps of America’s missing history. During the program African American Heroism And America’s Racial Past held at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture last month, the medical professional discussed what some have described as his most dramatic finding yet in his quest to further flesh out the contributions of Black Americans – a forgotten French WWI monument dedicated by members of an African American unit for their fellow soldiers killed in battle, including two Medal of Honor nominees.

“Sometimes ER docs have to rip off the Band-Aid and tell people things that are hard to hear. So tonight, I respectfully ask that I speak to you as patients in the ER,” Gusky said as he addressed the audience. “Some of the stories I’ll be sharing, most of them, are triumphant stories and inspiring, but some are painful and will be hard to hear.”

One of the most triumphant tales the doctor told was about U.S. soldiers Freddie Stowers and Burton Holmes, two men commemorated on the aging monument. Both men died fighting during WWI and were recommended to posthumously receive the Medal of Honor.

“My story began in the mud,” he said of his discoveries.

In 2014, Gusky was on assignment for The New York Times, documenting the famous Sergeant York saga in French farm country.

“I was driving a four-wheel drive Volvo and got stuck in the mud,” he recalled.

That misstep led to the doctor getting assistance from a local who in turn introduced him to an older landowner whose property included an abandoned abbey where American soldiers were once housed.

While touring inside, Gusky took photos of an inscription carved into the original wood that is possibly the only surviving inscription from a Black American WWI soldier, according to his consultant, Col. Rob Dalessandro, co-author of the book Willing Patriots: Men of Color in the First World War.

The doctor had also been photographing a site over a period of two years which a French friend believed to be an underground command post of a Black American unit, the Eighth Illinois.

Gusky shared one of those photos with the colonel.

“Jeff, you have just found a needle in a haystack,” the doctor recalled Dalessandro exclaimed after seeing the picture of the apparent command post. “This is not just a command post of a Black unit. This is the only all-African American unit in the U.S. military.”

Germans called them “The Black Devils” because of their fierceness in combat, Gusky noted.

The doctor then took his photos and assorted data to Dr. Rex Ellis, curator with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Dr. Krewasky Salter, curator of Military History for the museum.

“About halfway through the meeting, Dr. Ellis tells me, ‘You’ve stumbled onto ‘I have a dream” before I Have a Dream,” he said, referring to Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous Washington, D.C. speech. “The unknown birth of modern civil rights.

“[Ellis] told me the story was much bigger than what happened in France. It went back decades and it touches us today.”

Further travel, research, and archival digging eventually brought Gusky face-to-face, in a sense, to the Medal of Honor candidates Stowers and Holmes as well as the monument in November 2017. It stands on a hill near a battleground, a site recalled by French locals, but lost to most of American memory.

The structure was paid for by each member of the Eighth Illinois. Every man donated a dollar to the monument with the names of their deceased comrades listed prominently – for a total of $3,000 – just weeks after the deadly battle.

The doctor explained that such markers were important to Black military men and women because, after the Civil War, soldiers of color who fought for the Union knew they had earned their place in what was their country. Their action helped abolish slavery, assure equal rights under law, and secure voting rights – at least all on paper, which was the sense of purpose Ellis had alluded to.

Gusky admitted that these citizens knew White America was not going to accept them as equals, despite their equal service in preserving the Union. Therefore, the military, and their superior service within it, became a point of pride for many African Americans in the decades after the Civil War. Being in the military meant having a role to play within the nation; the belief in something more significant than the individual; proving worth, and defending their own rights as they relied on collective teamwork.

That pride, sense of duty, and dedication to country drove the Eighth Illinois to serve diligently, erect their own battle memorial, and support two of their own in receiving the Medals of Honor after a fierce fight.

“German soldiers waved the white flag,” the doctor announced, as he described the pivotal battle that occurred. “Our American boys got out of the trenches and moved toward the German soldiers – they could have killed them but they didn’t; they went to capture them.”

He explained it was actually a ruse.

Enemy machine-gun fire unexpectedly tore into the Black Devils, killing a number of them. As part of his lecture the presenter read aloud Holmes’ original nomination narrative for the Medal of Honor.

“It says, ‘For extraordinary heroism in an attack in the Champaign Sector, Hill 188, Sept. 28, 1918, Private Holmes, after his automatic rifle was out of commission and he himself badly wounded, returned to the company’s headquarters of his own volition, got a reserve automatic rifle, went back and fired with this on the enemy until he was killed. This happened under heavy machine gun and shell fire’” Gusky read.

“Something is driving him. He believes in something bigger than himself,” the presenter voiced. “But it wasn’t just him.”

The Eighth Illinois was made up of impoverished draftees who picked cotton before military service. After joining up, the unit in fact “… turned out to have the most amazing record of any Black unit in WWI,” affirmed the speaker, in contrast with the contemporary military view of the unit.

For Stowers, it was his destiny to be the first African American to receive a Medal of Honor in WWI or WWII, according to Gusky. His medal was awarded in 1991 after his lost paperwork was found in the 1980s. Stowers’ nomination for his heroism had been ignored by Gen. John Pershing in part because having two Black Medal of Honor nominees would have “shattered the myth of Jim Crow,” according to the doctor.

Gusky added that, despite the purposeful disregard of Stowers’ medal paperwork in 1918, his Medal of Honor nomination “sailed through” with no problem in 1990. The treatment Holmes’ nomination got was more dismissive, however.

“This recommendation is disapproved by command of General Pershing,” Gusky recited bluntly from archived paperwork. Although Holmes did receive a Distinguished Service Cross, currently he still lacks the Medal of Honor.

“Private Burton Holmes gave his life for an America that he knew was imperfect. But it was his country, and he believed that it was worth fighting for and dying for. We must thank him for his courage and sacrifice,” Gusky reflected.

“Hopefully, there’ll be enough press coverage that the U.S. Army will reopen the 1918 Medal of Honor nomination.”

Throughout the doctor’s lecture, he educated his audience on many points-in-time of racial injustice that has often been overlooked in history. Incidents such as the East St. Louis Massacres; Booker T. Washington’s aggressive opposition to dissent from other Black leaders; promises of steps toward desegregation by presidential contender Woodrow Wilson to Black voters, which he later recanted once safely elected to the White House.

Time and again, however, the accomplishments of Stowers, Holmes and the Black Devils – and their belated recognition – were revisited through the night as a cultural dividing line between post-Civil War America and the start of the modern Civil Rights movement.

“A polarized America is a vulnerable America,” Gusky offered. “I believe that the story of Private Holmes can unite America around principal, and go deeper than race, deeper than class, deeper than material wealth, deeper than education.

“The choice that Private Holmes made tells us that America, with all of its imperfections, remains a way of being human that’s worth fighting for.”

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