Sunday, September 29, 2019

Gold Star Mothers' Day

By Michelle Smith, Volunteer

Some of the most rewarding aspects of studying our nation’s history are finding familiar voices within its stories and placing our own families’ histories within its framework. While we often focus on the major figures and events of a particular period, the most illuminating and engaging information can be found in the accounts of the everyday people who experienced the time firsthand. Diaries, letters, and other personal documents fill in the gaps left by broad overviews of specific events and show contemporary readers what life was really like during a particular historical moment.

In an effort to locate and preserve such materials, the Tennessee State Library & Archives launched Over Here, Over There, a project to digitize the World War I memorabilia of Tennessee families. Participants in this project were able to share their documents and artifacts with the general public while keeping the originals, allowing their personal histories to contribute to a greater understanding of the war itself, its brave soldiers, and their loved ones back home. After holding digitization events in several Tennessee cities, the collection grew to contain over 1200 items.

Images from an article on the Ring sons in the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American, June 30, 1918. TeVA Collection

Several of these items showcase particular families and document their experiences with the war. For example, the Library & Archives now offers a well-rounded collection of information on the Ring family, whose memorabilia was graciously shared by family members at the Franklin digitization event in 2017. Three of the Ring family’s sons, Frank, Nathan, and Joseph, served in the war and their mother, Sarah Frances, later traveled to Europe as a participant in a program for Gold Star mothers and widows. Among the items available to view online are letters between the sons, their mother, and other family members, Sarah Frances’ travel diary, and artifacts and photos that further illustrate the family’s wartime experience.

Letter from Frank M. Ring to his mother, September 8, 1918. TeVA Collection

The sons’ letters offer insight into the conditions that soldiers faced overseas, including the troops’ movement across Europe and their eagerness to maintain contact with their families back home. Thanks to the family’s full collection, we are able to pair the sons’ writing with their photos and to study the war through the lens of their experiences.

Sarah Ring’s diary entry on visiting Frank’s grave at the Somme, August 7, 1933. TeVA Collection

Their mother, Sarah Frances M. Ring, documented her experience with the Gold Star travel program in a well-preserved diary that is available to view via the Library & Archives’ Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA). In 1933, Sarah Frances—whose son, Frank, died in combat—joined a group of other women whose loved ones were killed during the war on a pilgrimage to Europe. Her account describes how their travel group tracked their loved ones’ movement through France, highlighting specific places in which important events or actions took place years earlier.

Sarah Frances M. Ring at the Somme Cemetery, standing next to the grave of her son Frank. TeVA Collection.

The family’s collection also includes a photo of Sarah Frances beside Frank’s grave at the Somme Cemetery for American soldiers in France, which adds even more depth to her written account of the visit. Her diary would make a particularly interesting and timely read as the last Sunday in September approaches, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt set as “Gold Star Mother’s Day” in 1936.

In conjunction, these photos, artifacts, and letters construct a quite clear image of what wartime looked like for American families—both here and there. The Ring family’s records preserve an important piece of World War I history and, thanks to their family’s willingness to share them, prove that every contributing voice makes our nation’s history richer.

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

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