True Sons of Freedom, a photographic exhibition at the Library of Virginia, explores the stories of Virginia’s African American World War I soldiers. More than just mementos for families and sweethearts, these portraits challenge the crude and demoralizing cultural products of an era that often reduced African Americans to stereotypes and denied them full participation as citizens of the United States. Reflecting the pride and determination of African American World War I servicemen, the images were submitted with the soldiers’ responses to military service questionnaires created by the Virginia War History Commission, part of an effort to capture the scope of Virginians’ participation in the Great War. The original photographs, reproduced in the gallery at nearly life-size dimensions, place visitors at eye level in front of the soldiers. The monumental scale allows viewers the opportunity to examine rich details not seen in the original photo postcards.
This blog post will examine the life of one of the soldiers featured in the exhibit in greater detail. James Preston Spencer served in the 370th Infantry. He was born on 15 June 1888 in Charlotte Court House, Virginia. His parents, William Spencer and Bettie Reed Henry Spencer, had eleven children in total. Both were born in Charlotte County and presumably into slavery, William in 1856 and Bettie in 1863, at a plantation called Roxabel.
Spencer was a student at the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute in Petersburg at the time of his enlistment. In a questionnaire completed for the Virginia War History Commission, he wrote that “I felt that it was my patriotic duty to serve my county at the most critical hour in the Nation’s history, though my Race had not been given their proper rights.”
Spencer enlisted in October 1917 at Camp Lee, Virginia. He was sent to France in April 1918 to join the 370th Company which was made up largely of members of the 8th Illinois National Guard. He was full of praise for his first commander in France, Col. Franklin A. Denison, an African-American officer “of rare intelligence and ability” who “held the cause of American dear to his heart.” Spencer noted that Dennison was replaced by a white officer in the fall of 1918 “simply on prejudicial grounds.”
Spencer participated in the Aisne-Marne offensive. He noted that his regiment was cited as a whole, and in a letter attached to his questionnaire he noted that “this regiment won distinction during its stay in France, especially in the estimation of the French people. Our commanding general said the history of the Great War will be quite incomplete if the noble deeds of this regiment be not handed down in history to coming generations.” He wrote that they were involved in putting up barbed wire in close range to the enemy in the Argonne Forest, and described an instance when “the members of the 2nd battalion, once marched to the Argonne under shell fire from the German artillery which caught the range of the road over which we passed for a distance of six miles. Instead of getting to the designated position behind time we got there two hours ahead of time, and not an officer or man lost his courage under such a trying situation.”
Spencer was wounded in the hand but “was cheated out of disability claim by prejudice on part of medical officers after discharge.” Despite the racism he had endured, Spencer held out hope for a better tomorrow. He hoped that the information he provided in his questionnaire would “aid in printing or recording the deeds of the Negro soldiers in the Great War for democracy.” Like many other African American soldiers serving in the war, he hoped that the valor and dedication they demonstrated would help bring about a more equal peacetime society in the U.S. When asked about the effect of his wartime experiences on his state of mind, Spencer noted that his experience at the front “impressed me with the idea that blood seems to be the only atonement for man’s sin; the price of all true sacrifices.”
After the war, Spencer became a school teacher and principal. He served as vocation principal of the Columbus Training School in Whiteville, North Carolina. Later he was appointed to head the Chesterfield County School, which was then a two-year high school located in Gravel Hill. He oversaw the school’s transfer to a new site. He worked briefly as the branch manager of an insurance company in Youngstown, Ohio, before returning to Virginia at the beginning of the Great Depression to complete his training at Virginia Union University, where he graduated as an honor student in 1931. He then became principal of the Isle of Wight County Training School. He returned to Chesterfield County High School in 1933. He received an M.A. in education from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in September 1939.
Throughout his life he was active in both educational and community organizations. He was president of both the Third District of the Virginia Teachers Association and the Chesterfield County Teachers Association. He also was a pioneer organizer of the Virginia Voters League, which was founded in 1941 to organize voter registration drives for African Americans, and he served twice as its president. He was a member of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. Spencer was also a plaintiff in a 1948 case concerning discrimination in the pay of “Negro teachers” of Chesterfield County on the grounds of color, a case argued by attorney Martin A. Martin in federal court.
James Spencer died on 4 November 1960 in Central State Hospital after a long-term stay due to heart disease, at the age of 72. He was buried at the Richmond National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Evie L. Spencer, and their three daughters, as well as five of his siblings and six grandchildren.
The exhibit True Sons of Freedom will be on display through November, coinciding with the centennial of the end of the war. The title comes from a 1918 lithograph by Charles Gustrine, showing African-American soldiers fighting with a benevolent Abraham Lincoln watching from the background.
To view a more extensive exhibit of soldiers’ photos and War History Commission questionnaires, visit http://www.virginiamemory.com/truesons.
For families wishing to find out more or to contribute information about the soldiers, contact Barbara Batson, exhibitions coordinator, at (804) 692-3518 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Dale Neighbors, visual studies collection coordinator and exhibition curator, at (804) 692-3711 or email@example.com.
-Claire Radcliffe, State Records Archivist