Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 52/John Thomason

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Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

John Thomason was born in 1889 on a farm in the Piedmont region of North Carolina to an upper-middle-class family. He attended a state agriculture and mechanical college for 2 years, studying mechanical engineering, before being approached by a general building contractor to work designing and constructing buildings. Even though John was set to receive a large inheritance, he desired to make an earning on his own.[1]

Construction Career[edit | edit source]

As a contractor, Thomason traveled all over the South, giving him a first opportunity to see the country outside of North Carolina. His work took him to every state south of Pennsylvania. Thomason assisted building post offices, college buildings, and office buildings. After a couple of years working in construction, Thomason decided to enlist in the army due to the United States participation in World War I.

Military Service[edit | edit source]

Thomason was sent to Camp Sevier in South Carolina. The camp housed one of the few African-American battalions. Thomason was surprised the Army was allowing African-Americans to stay at the same camps as the white soldiers. Thomason was soon promoted to Sergent Major by the Colonel, who was an old friend. Since Thomason worked in construction by trade, he was tasked constructing mess halls and floors for tents. Thomason's personal connections assisted him as he was able to acquire some lumber and stoves for his colonel and some blankets for his men, impressing his superiors with his abilities to handle logistics.

Thomason was sent to Texas to take a training course to make him a bayonet instructor. However, before he was able to train anyone, Thomason was sent off to France. John rode to France on the British ship, the Miltiades, with 2,000 other men. On their way over, a large explosion from a submarine attack rocked the ship, however, the ship was not damaged and was able to complete the journey.

In France, Thomason was tasked with being an observer with the English and French troops on the front line. Thomason enjoyed this move as it allowed him to tour France.Thomason's division participated in most of the major battles of the war, getting credit for helping break the Hindenburg Line. However, since his job was only to observe and report Thomason avoided the violence of the front lines. Unlike most of his fellow soldiers, Thomason's job returned home without a scratch. Thomason enjoyed his time in the army, quoting he would "do it again" if the opportunity arose.[2]

Post-War Life[edit | edit source]

After the war, Thomason returned to his construction job for several years, before seeing a luxurious opportunity in the lumber business. He started his own lumber company, buying a sawmill where he cut hardwood. Like most businesses, Thomason's lumber business struggled through the Great Depression with a decrease in demand for business, but Thomason was able to gain just enough contacts to break even. His lumber business was able to prosper and make profits by 1939. He got married in 1925 but did not have any children. Thomason identified as a Southern Democrat.[3]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

African-American Service during World War I[edit | edit source]

File:The-harlem-hellfighters.jpg
"Some of the men of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action." Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.

African-Americans were eager to serve in World War I to display their patriotism and they could contribute to the protection of the nations. Black people had fought heroically in every war since the American Revolution, and would do so again. The NAACP encourage active participation to counteract racial tension and stereotypes.[4] Black combat soldiers fought with dignity, but still had to confront systemic racial discrimination and sander from their fellow white soldiers.[5]

One African-American unit from New York was the 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the "Harlem Hell Fighters". The regiment never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy. The 369th was also the first to reach the Rhine River and provided the longest service of any regiment in a foreign army. One of the soldiers, Henry Johnson was awarded Croix de Guerre by the French army for his bravery, however, remained unrecognized the the United States Army. The discrimination of the Jim Crown laws left many of soldiers unable to draw war pension, even though most had suffered permanent injuries from the war.

In 2015, President Obama posthumously awarded Johnson with the Medal of Honor.[6]

French-United States relations during World War I[edit | edit source]

When the United States entered World War I, the French Army who had been in the war for over three years requested reinforcements from the United States. United States commanding general John Pershing refused this request, writing: "All United States forces will fight united under the American flag, commanded by a United States General". However, Pershing was willing to supply the French Army with any African-American soldiers. The French were warned not to fraternize with blacks, but many ignored the request and formed interracial friendships.[7] The inclusion of the United States also brought US army doctors who helped with treating trench foot, a epidemic among the soldiers.[8]

Works Cited[edit | edit source]

"African-American Participation During World War I - Division Of Historical And Cultural Affairs - State Of Delaware". Division Of Historical And Cultural Affairs, 2016. https://history.delaware.gov/african-americans-ww1/.

Atenstaedt, Robert. "Trench Foot: The Medical Response In The First World War 1914–18". Science Direct, 2016. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1080603206703349


Interview, Carter, Douglas on John M. Thomason, February 23, 1939, Folder 320, Federal Writing Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.


"The Rise And Fall Of Jim Crow . "Jim Crow Stories: U.S. In World War I | PBS". Thirteen.Org, 2002. https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_ww1.html

Williams, Chad. "African-American Veterans Hoped Their Service In World War I Would Secure Their Rights At Home. It Didn't". Time, 2016. https://time.com/5450336/african-american-veterans-wwi/.

Wright, Ben. "Victory And Defeat: World War I, The Harlem Hellfighters, And A Lost Battle For Civil Rights - Proquest". Search.Proquest.Com, 2007. https://search.proquest.com/openview/1798bacb13f0a30ddae3f8809e8fa950/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=37747.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Interview, Carter, Douglas on John M. Thomason, February 23, 1939, Folder 320, Federal Writing Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.
  2. Interview, Carter, Douglas on John M. Thomason, February 23, 1939, Folder 320, Federal Writing Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.
  3. Interview, Carter, Douglas on John M. Thomason, February 23, 1939, Folder 320, Federal Writing Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.
  4. "African-American Participation During World War I". Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs - State of Delaware. Retrieved 2020-10-05.
  5. "African-American Veterans Hoped Their Service in World War I Would Secure Their Rights at Home. It Didn't". Time. Retrieved 2020-10-05.
  6. "Victory and Defeat: World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters, and a Lost Battle for Civil Rights - ProQuest". search.proquest.com. Retrieved 2020-10-05.
  7. "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . U.S. in World War I | PBS". www.thirteen.org. Retrieved 2020-10-05.
  8. Atenstaedt, Robert. "Trench Foot: The Medical Response In The First World War 1914–18". 2016. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1080603206703349