The African-American East Texas
This project grew from the most humble of beginnings: a walk through an African-American cemetery, and a World War I military headstone with a Star of David on it. From there, I grew interested in the lives and experiences of African Americans from East Texas who served in World War I. What started as a ‘simple’ photographic survey of military gravestones in Walker County soon expanded in a variety of unforeseen ways. One East Texas county soon became eight. A side project evolved that involved photographing over ten thousand African-American civilian headstones (in addition to military headstones), and making all of them available to the public on the website findagrave.com. And perhaps most importantly, the recording of military headstones was accompanied by archival research at local, regional, and national levels, and by oral histories taken from friends and family members. Consequently, what had begun as a modest attempt to highlight local history had evolved into something more: a large-scale effort to explore the complexities of the East Texas African-American experience during World War I.
Although still ongoing, preliminary research confirms this diversity of experiences. It reveals men killed in action and men who deserted or evaded draft; illiterate to college educated; professional fighting soldiers as well as skilled and unskilled labor; sailors; and an array of men whose war-time experiences directly and indirectly changed their lives for the better or worse. Ultimately, this research aims to do for Texan African-American males what has already been done for their northern counterparts: namely, to demonstrate that their war service consisted of more than ‘just’ labor, and that the East Texas African-American contribution to (and experience of) the war was far more complex than has been acknowledged by the historical community or general public.
Anyone with information to share, or who is interested in learning more about the project, is encouraged to get in touch.