Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The African American Gold Star Mothers Who Went To France

Several weeks ago, while speaking with a cousin in California, she asked me if I had ever seen the letter inviting my gr. grandmother Georgia Ann Bass, to France.

"What?" I said.
"To France," I asked.
" Oh yes, she received a letter inviting her to come and visit her son's grave in France," she explained.

I know that I had never seen such a letter and found the concept of such a letter somewhat unbelievable. I wanted to see that letter, and my cousin promised to search for it, as she had a copy of it.

As far as I know, my gr. grandmother Georgia Ann Bass never left Arkansas. But she, like thousands of mothers around the world lost a son in the effort to bring peace in a far away land and to preserve democracy.  And ironically, she, like many women of color, gave a son who would never have had the freedom in America, compared to the respect and treatment that he experienced in France before he died. Because he was a American Black soldier in France, World War I.

The soldier was Louis Bass, and he was my grandmother's brother, Louis Bass, of Horatio Arkansas who died on June 4, 1918 and is buried at St. Mihiel American Cemetery in France.

Pvt. Louis Bass, of the 309th Quartermaster Labor Batallion

St. Mihiel American Cemetery, Thiancourt, France

But I have known this much about my gr. Uncle Louis for years. So what was this about an alleged invitation to visit France? I had not heard of this particular story.

Knowing how the US Government treated black soldiers, in World War I, and how they were treated, I was still trying to figure out the veracity of the invitation, days after she told me about it.

My cousin went on to say that Uncle Louis served in a French unit and France was going to assist our gr. grandmother mother who had lost her son, to come and visit the graves of  her lost loved one. So while I have been waiting for a copy of this invitation, I decided to see what I could learn about mothers who lost their sons in World War I, going to France and if my great grandmother Georgia Ann Bass would have received an invitation.

Well, I must admit that was quite surprised to find that my great grandmother truly might may have been invited to travel, after all.

However, it turns out that Louis Bass served not in a French regiment, but in the 309th Quartermaster Labor Battalion, an American unit. Now, I don't know many of the details about his experience as a soldier, nor of details that led to his death, but I do know that he died in France in June 1918, and as I mentioned above, he is buried in the St. Mihiel American Cemetery.

But what surprised me was to learn that there was an invitation extended to women to travel to France to visit their loved one's final resting place. The invitations were made to the Gold Star Mothers. My gr. grandmother Georgia Ann, was a Gold Star Mother! That meant that she had lost a son in World War I.

Well in an effort to learn more about the Gold Star Mothers going to France, I found an amazing drama.
I found the answer to that question easily enough by simply using Google search engine. I typed in "Gold Star Mothers travel to France", and surprisingly an article about Gold Star mother pilgrimages came up from the National Archives magazine, Prologue. What made the article particularly unique was that one of featured mothers in the article was a African American woman called Katherine Holley, and it told her story of her pilgrimage to France to visit her husband's grave.

And the article also explained the history of how these pilgrimages came to occur.

I learned that there were six voyages that contained Black mothers and wives making their pilgrimage to France. The year was 1930, and several thousand women were invited and among the more then 6000 who made the trip, about 300 of them were women of color.

So did Grandma Georgia Ann Bass travel to France?

No, she did not. I wondered why.
Was she simply not well enough to travel?
Was she possibly not able to afford the trip?
Was she perhaps too afraid to undertake such a journey?

And then even more questions arose as well.

Could anything be learned of the women who did travel?
Are there photos of them?
What were some of their names?

Well I went researching again, and to my surprise, there are some photos and there are also articles in the press. In fact, in 1930 the experiences of the Black women made most of the headlines!

Apparently there was an amazing and yet sad aspect to the story of the mothers traveling.Women of color were going to be required to travel under the restrictions of Jim Crow segregation.  White mothers were accommodated on luxury ocean liners. Black women would be transported on merchant steamers---cargo ships.

They had to travel on freighters! Their sons had died for their country, and years later when given they chance to visit their graves these women had to travel on freight steamers! What irony! The ancestors of these women came across the Atlantic as cargo when brought to America as slaves. Centuries later in the 20th century---after losing their sons and husbands who died for their country--they had to cross the Atlantic on cargo ships---still not treated with the dignity that these grieving mothers and wives deserved.

The press addressed this sad story frequently that year.

From the Baltimore Press:

From the Pittsburgh Press:

From the the Chicago Press:

Clearly the story was a major one. And what happened got the nation's attention, because many of the mothers who were eligible to travel, suddenly turned it down rather than suffer the indignities offered to them by a government too afraid to address the sentiments of race based public policy. Many of the mothers simply said "no" and upon arrival in New York to sail, they turned it down. They had given their sons and yet they were still to be given a different treatment upon departure so that others would not be be "offended" by their color.The protesting mothers decided that they would not take the trip to see their son's final resting place, for one simple reason---they were going to be required to travel under the restrictions of Jim Crow segregation. To for meant that they approved of the US's racial policy of "seperate and unequal".

But yet, a few dozen women left on each voyage in spite of the second class treatment. And I was able to find the names of a few of them by looking at Immigration and arrival records on Ancestry. This was a roster of those who returned from one of the final voyages in 1931.

Immigration roster of Gold Star Mothers returning to the US in 1931
Source Citation: Year: 1931; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 5012; Line: 3.

Source Citation: Year: 1931; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 5012; Line: 3.

I admit that since my own great grandmother was invited and did not travel, I have to wonder, did she eventually become one of the women who decided not to go, in protest? Or was she simply not able to travel?

Sadly, no one is living who knows the answer to this story.

But several dozen went anyway, and I wanted to also know their story, and I wondered if anything could be found about their experience.

Well one surprise came to me from a most unexpected place----EBAY!!! Yes, everybody's favorite online auction--there was a photo of some of the Gold Star Mothers themselves! There was a high resolution image of the women who did travel, and their reception in New York that was broadcast by WNYC radio.

Image of Gold Star Mothers Reception in New York before departure.
Image originally appeared in Crisis Magazine in 1930
Item was recently sold on Ebay

I found a second image also on Ebay of one of the Gold Star mothers visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while in Paris, France.

Gold Star Mother Signing Book at Tomb in France.
This item also recently sold on Ebay.

And while searching for yet more information what a surprise to also see a clipping from a newspaper showing the radio listings of the day. On the listing was the day's schedule which included the program was to be the live broadcast of the reception of the Negro Gold Star Mothers at City Hall in New York City. I wonder if old recordings of that broadcast still exist in New York. Perhaps someone with contacts at WNYC radio, will know if such a copy exists in their archived holdings.

Old Radio Log Showing Mayor Walker's Reception of Gold Star Mothers in New York City

I never expected to find so much about Gold Star mothers. 

To learn that my own great grandmother Georgia Ann Bass was among that class of women is exciting! The story of her having been invited to France was truly interesting, and I still await the letter that my cousin saw in her collection of family items. 

As I began to explore whether anything could be learned, I found so much more. The story of the Gold Star mothers is an amazing one, and the story of the events that surrounded the African American women saddens me, but I think, I also understand both sides-those who did not go, and those who chose to go.

I fully comprehend the sentiments of the women who protested and who refused to travel under the heinous system of Jim Crow segregation. Yet, I also fully understand the reason why those who did choose to go, why they went anyway. They had sons, and husbands to finally put to rest, and the chance to bring that closure to their loss and to be close to their loved one's resting place was important.

My uncle, Pvt. Louis Bass gave all he had in the fight for democracy. Whatever happened on that fateful day in June, 1918, is not known, but I do know that he fell for his country, and though his country did not love him back, he was still a noble man. 

I someday hope to see his grave, and though my gr. grandmother Georgia Ann did not get to see her son's grave, I know that his mother called his name so many times when she lost her son, and I dare too, to call his name now, and I shall say it aloud on this Memorial Day.

Pvt. Louis Bass was never forgotten by his mother, and shall not be forgotten by me.

His mother, Georgia Ann Bass, was a Gold Star Mother, and the pain of her loss cannot be described because mothers should not have to bury their sons. 

But hopefully the actions of the men of all colors who won the "The Great War", will be remembered . 

And on Decoration Day, this year, I shall think of them both.


Renate Yarborough Sanders said...

Wow. What an informational post! Thank you so much for your thoroughness in exploring this.
Right now, my blood is BOILING as I absorb the the thoughts of how these women were treated by our government. I need to calm down, but it's just so infuriating! Like you, I completely understand why so many of the women chose not to go, and why, for others the decision was to go through with it.
I plan to read and learn more about this, soon.

Thanks for sharing!

Matilda Graham said...

As a mother, imagining how Georgia Ann Bass felt about not being able or wanting to visit the grave of her son Pvt Louis Bass. The strength of her love was strong yet obstacles blocked the opportunity to touch the stone and say goodbye! Thank you for sharing their story.

Unknown said...

What a awesome educational read!

Amy Bertsch said...

As always, amazing work! Thank you! You might be interested in the collection, "U.S. World War I Mothers' Pilgrimage, 1930." Can't search by race or unit, but still an interesting collection and shows mothers and widows.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thanks Amy, and thanks for sharing that link about the collection on Ancestry. I just learned about it! Sure enough there was my great grandmother's name!

Joe Kennedy said...

There's newsreel footage, too! See:

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