|Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page from Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.
A Page From Our American Story
Freddie Stowers, the grandson of a South Carolina slave, holds a unique spot in America’s pantheon of war heroes — as the only African American awarded the Medal of Honor for service in World War I. Stowers’ story, however, must be told in two parts.
The first part of the story is his act of heroism in 1918; the second part is that it took more than 72 years before Stowers finally received the recognition he was due.
The United States was the last major combatant to enter World War I, the “war to end all wars.” The conflict began in Europe in 1914, but in the U.S., isolationist sentiments were strong resulting in a foreign policy of non-intervention. However, in April 1917, after a German U-boat sank the British ship Lusitania, killing 128 Americans on board, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Three months later, on July 3, 1917, American troops landed in France.
Corporal Freddie Stowers came to France as part of the all-black Company C, 371st Regiment, 93rd Division that deployed in September, 1918. His service in France was short but courageous and memorable.
More than 50 years after the Civil War, America’s military was still segregated. The French, however, had no such rules, and Stowers and Company C were sent to the front lines to serve alongside French troops.
On September 28, just days after arriving in France, Stowers’ company was in the midst of an attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, when enemy forces appeared to be giving up.
According to the War Department, German soldiers emerged from their trenches waving a white flag, arms in the air — military actions that signal surrender. It was a ruse, however. As Americans, including Cpl. Stowers, went to capture the “surrendering” Germans, another wave of the enemy arose and opened fire.
Very quickly, Company C’s lieutenant and non-commissioned officers were killed in the fight. This left the 21-year-old Stowers in command. Without hesitation, he implored his men to advance on the Germans.
Stowers would be mortally shot during the exchange. Wounded and dying, Stowers continued to fight on, inspiring his men to push the enemy back. With Stowers leading the counter-attack, Americans took out an enemy machine gun position and went on to capture Hill 188.
Following the battle, Stowers’ commanding officer nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but the nomination was never processed. The Pentagon said the paperwork was misplaced. Some raise the possibility that the nomination wasn’t misplaced at all, but deliberately lost. They point to the fact that American troops were segregated and suggest that racial bias in the military might be the reason for Stowers’ missing paperwork.
The final part of Freddie Stowers’ story begins in 1990. As the Department of Defense began to modernize its data systems, it ordered a review of all battlefield medal nominations. When Stowers’ recommendation was found, the Pentagon quickly took action to give the corporal the long overdue recognition and honor he deserved.
On April 24, 1991, more than 72 years after Stowers made the ultimate sacrifice for his nation, his sisters Georgiana Palmer and Mary Bowens, 88- and 77-years-old at the time, were presented his Medal of Honor by President George H. W. Bush.
Long before Stowers was honored by his nation, he, along with other members of Company C, received recognition from the French government: “For extraordinary heroism under fire.” Stowers and his unit received the Croix de Guerre – the French War Cross — the highest military medal France awards to allied soldiers.
Prior to World War I, 49 African Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor, including 25 men who fought for the Union in the Civil War. There were 119 Medals of Honor recipients in World War I, with Stowers being the only African American. His long overdue recognition in 1991 is a small but important sign of the progress we as a nation have made.
|The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest member of the Smithsonian Institution’s family of extraordinary museums.
The museum will be far more than a collection of objects. The Museum will be a powerful, positive force in the national discussion about race and the important role African Americans have played in the American story — a museum that will make all Americans proud.
so, i read this review of a book that took me back to information given to us in class at the UW …stunning, sad and eye opening information yet this book review revealed much more
Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist
Michelle Alexander”s ‘The New Jim Crow,’ a troubling and necessary book
Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. suggests reading “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, who contends that the mass incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate against felons in housing, employment, education and voting, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system.
“You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this all while not appearing to.”
— Richard Nixon as quoted by H.R. Haldeman, supporting a get-tough-on drugs strategy
“They give black people time like it’s lunch down there. You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find: just us.”— Richard Pryor
Michelle Alexander was an ACLU attorney in Oakland, preparing a racial-profiling lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol. The ACLU had put out a request for anyone who had been profiled to get in touch. One day, in walked this black man.
He was maybe 19 and toted a thick sheaf of papers, what Alexander calls an “incredibly detailed” accounting of at least a dozen police stops over a nine-month period, with dates, places and officers’ names. This was, she thought, a “dream plaintiff.”
But it turned out he had a record, a drug felony — and she told him she couldn’t use him; the state’s attorney would eat him alive. He insisted he was innocent, said police had planted drugs and beaten him. But she was no longer listening. Finally, enraged, he snatched the papers back and started shredding them.
“You’re no better than the police,” he cried. “You’re doing what they did to me!” The conviction meant he couldn’t work or go to school, had to live with his grandmother. Did Alexander know how that felt? And she wanted a dream plaintiff? “Just go to my neighborhood,” he said. “See if you can find one black man my age they haven’t gotten to already.”
She saw him again a couple of months later. He gave her a potted plant from his grandmother’s porch — he couldn’t afford flowers — and apologized. A few months after that, a scandal broke: Oakland police officers accused of planting drugs and beating up innocent victims. One of the officers involved was the one named by that young man.
“It was,” says Alexander now, more than 10 years later, “the beginning of me asking some hard questions of myself as a civil-rights lawyer. … What is actually going on in his neighborhood? How is it that they’ve already gotten to all the young African-American men in his neighborhood? I began questioning my own assumptions about how the criminal-justice system works.”
The result is a compelling new book. Others have written of the racial bias of the criminal-injustice system. In “The New Jim Crow,” Alexander goes a provocative step further. She contends that the mass incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate against felons in housing, employment, education and voting, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system. A new segregation.
She has a point. Yes, the War on Drugs is officially race-neutral. So were the grandfather clause and other Jim Crow laws whose intention and effect was nevertheless to restrict black freedom.
The War on Drugs is a war on African-American people and we countenance it because we implicitly accept certain assumptions sold to us by news and entertainment media, chief among them that drug use is rampant in the black community. But. The. Assumption. Is. WRONG.
According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly equal rate in percentage terms. In terms of raw numbers, whites are far and away the biggest users — and dealers — of illegal drugs.
So why aren’t cops kicking their doors in? Why aren’t their sons pulled over a dozen times in nine months? Why are black men 12 times likelier to be jailed for drugs than white ones? Why aren’t white communities robbed of their fathers, brothers, sons?
With inexorable logic, “The New Jim Crow” propounds an answer many will resist and most have not even considered. It is a troubling and profoundly necessary book.
Please read it.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: email@example.com
NEW YORK – In honor of its 40th anniversary, Essence magazine is bringing back an old friend: Terry McMillan.
A few pages of excerpts from McMillan’s “Getting to Happy,” a sequel to her million-selling “Waiting to Exhale,” will appear in the next four issues of Essence, starting with the June edition, which came out this week. It’s a familiar place for McMillan, whose ties to the magazine date back to the 1970s, when she was in college and won an Essence writing contest.
“They’re like family,” McMillan, whose book comes out this fall, says of Essence, “and Essence readers have been a large part of my audience.”
Essence senior editor Patrik Henry Bass noted the magazine’s long support for black women writers, including Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor. When Essence started, Morrison’s debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” had just been released. Walker was years away from writing “The Color Purple” and Toni Cade Bambara had yet to publish her first book.
“Nobody in the mainstream media was paying attention to these women,” Bass says.
“We wanted to do something special for the anniversary and when I heard that Terry was writing `Getting to Happy,’ I said, `Terry, what do you have so far? Could you do something original for us?’ And she said, `Well, I just finished the sequel and we thought, “Why not do excerpts?”‘ She couldn’t believe it, because so few people do excerpts anymore.”
McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale,” published in 1992, tells of the personal and professional conflicts of four women living in Phoenix. The novel sold more than 1 million copies and is still cited as a landmark for convincing publishers of the large audience size for black fiction.
McMillan, whose other books include “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and “The Interruption of Everything,” said she had no intention of writing a sequel to “Exhale” until she spoke at a church in Oakland, Calif., around a year ago. A resident of the Bay area, the author was still getting over her vicious, public feud with ex-husband Jonathan Plummer and read a poem about her experience.
“So these women responded big time to this poem, and there was this aura, women crying and all kinds of stuff. When it was time to sign books, there were women I had gone to college with, women who had been ex-professors, financial aid counselors. I spoke to them and realized how many of them had never been married, how many were divorced, how many never had children,” she says.
“I wanted to be able to dramatize that in some way. I didn’t want to tell just one woman’s story. And that’s when it dawned on me that I had four women I might be able to turn to. I got the paperback off the shelf and looked over it and said, `You know, they were the perfect candidates.'”
McMillan, 58, is a native of Port Huron, Mich., who, in 1987, self-published her first novel, “Mama.” She became a major best seller with “Disappearing Acts” and a superstar after “Waiting to Exhale.” Her appeal has long been her rough take on relationships, a knack that Essence seems to have appreciated long ago. The topic for the magazine’s writing contest: Are black men and women closer than they used to be, or further apart?