Friday, November 17, 2017

Fisk University in the Great War

By Allison Griffey

Like other schools, Fisk University contributed to the war effort during World War I. University leaders promoted the war effort and inspired students to participate. Two professors, Dexter N. Lutz and Leo E. Walker, joined the service not long after war was declared. On the homefront, professor Isaac Fisher coordinated many patriotic events on campus, such as lectures and flag raising ceremonies. He inspired students by linking patriotism with increased civil rights since the war had created new opportunities for African-American at home and overseas. Fisk instituted weekly military training for its male students through the Students’ Army Training Corps and converted its facilities to host over 600 black soldiers on-site.

Odie Falls Jennings, 1918

Tennessee World War I Gold Star Records, 1918-1924

Jennings was a member of Fisk’s Students’ Army Training Corps when he died at age 20 of influenza and pneumonia during the global Influenza Epidemic of 1918. The S.A.T.C. was a popular choice for college-age men, since it allowed them to continue their studies while joining the military and training on the homefront.

Fisk was one of three black institutions, alongside Howard University and Atlanta University that collaborated to establish the first black officers' training camp at Camp Dodge, Iowa. Black college students were instrumental in the formation of this camp, at least in part because of the direct impact the draft had on their lives. The Selective Service Act of 1917 called for draft registration of American men regardless of race. While some African-American were hesitant to support the United States' involvement in the war, many hoped that participation might lead to securing equal rights for the black population. Over 370,000 African-American men were inducted into the army. The military remained segregated and most black soldiers were assigned to service units that performed manual labor, though the army did create two combat divisions for African-American troops.

Letter to Governor Tom C. Rye from F. A. McKenzie, President of Fisk University, April 7, 1917

Governor Tom C. Rye Papers, 1915-1919

These documents describe the willingness of the African-American students at Fisk University to participate in the war effort. McKenzie also suggests organizing a network of African-American schools in Tennessee to create programs for military training and volunteer service in organizations such as the Red Cross.

Women at Fisk also worked industriously to “do their bit.” Their auxiliary chapter of the Red Cross produced 450 bed shirts and 100 knitted items for servicemen. Additionally, black women joined in the war effort by leading liberty loan drives, hosting rallies, registering nurses, and supporting black servicemen through clubs such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), Red Cross, and women's auxiliaries for black soldier unit. Ella Brown, dean of women, advocated for food conservation and asked students to take an active role addressing food shortage issues overseas. Professor Fisher also arranged for leading black women in the community to share their views on the war with soldiers. These lectures were given in part because professor Fisher believed women’s’ voices were as necessary to hear as men’s’ and because he hoped that the women would inspire soldiers by reminding them of the women in their lives.

Charter members of Fisk University Auxiliary, Nashville Chapter, American Red Cross, circa 1918

Davidson County Women in the World War, 1914-1919

Members of the group (alphabetical): Misses Abigail Jackson, Chairman, Instructor in Mathematics, Felina G. Blaine, Velda T. Brown, Lucy Brewer, Helen M. Burrell, Grace B. Broyles, Mabel E. Campbell, Emmie F. Drake, Tommie Sue A. Fosta, Pearl C. Haynes, Flay M. Henderson, Arah L. Horton, Florence B. Jackson, Clara W. Johnson, Clara L. Langrum, Ada B. Lewis, Ferris W. Lewis, Andrades S. Lindsay, Alma A. Oakes, Manila L. Owens, Roselyn L. Purdy, Nellie A. Randolph, Altamese C. Roberts, Ruth I. Rowan, Valda E. Sanders, Margaret A. Slater, Moirselles M. Stewart, Ethelynde J. Sutton, Alice M. Thomas, Isabel B. Walden, Annie G. Quick, Mrs. Ella W. Brown, Dean of Women and Mrs. M. S. Crosthwait, Registrar.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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