Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Summer II/Section 09/John M. Tabor

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John M. Tabor
Born1889
Central North Carolina
DiedUnknown
EthnicityWhite
TitleSergeant Major, 30th Infantry Division

Overview[edit | edit source]

Sergeant Major John M. Tabor was a white North Carolinian who was born to a well-off family and answered the call to fight overseas in Europe during World War I as a member of the 30th Infantry Division.[1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Childhood and Education[edit | edit source]

John M. Tabor was born on a farm in the Piedmont region of North Carolina in 1889. His family was financially well off but inheritance did not interest Tabor; instead, he wished to make his own living. He went to a state agriculture and mechanical college to learn mechanical engineering, but dropped out following his sophomore year to take a construction job. Following this, Tabor was on his own and never sought any more financial support from his family.[2]

Construction Career[edit | edit source]

Tabor’s employer, a general construction firm, built post offices, colleges, and many other buildings. Tabor spent the next few years moving from project to project all over the southern United States. While he was spending time home in North Carolina between projects, Tabor decided to enlist in the army due to the onset for World War I.[3]

Military Service[edit | edit source]

Once enlisted, Tabor reported to Camp Sevier just outside Greenville, South Carolina.[4] He was assigned to the 30th Infantry “Old Hickory” Division, named after former President Andrew Jackson who grew up in the area.[5] Also training at the newly-constructed camp was one of the few African American divisions in the nation.

At Camp Sevier, Tabor would receive promotion to Sergeant Major due to his connections with the camp’s colonel and continue to impress his superiors with his ability to handle logistics and navigate camp bureaucracy. One such instance is when he secured his Major a stove for his cabin, and also managed to secure blankets for the rest of his men.


Following some time at Camp Sevier, Tabor was to be transferred to Texas to become a bayonet instructor. However, before he could make it there, he was reassigned to join the British and French troops as an observer in Europe. His mission was to get a lay of the land and learn about the conditions at the front before the rest of the 30th Infantry was sent overseas so that he could appraise them of the situation when they arrived. First with the British, and then the French, Tabor would serve along the entire front line.


The rest of the 30th Infantry would arrive in April 1918, where part of the 30th would be attached to the British in France and then Belgium. In September of the same year they would be part of the offensive to take the Hindenburg Line near the border of France and Belgium.[6] This German defensive position was one of their last lines of defense and its fall to the Allied offensive would signal the conclusion of World War I.[7] Tabor and the 30th would fight in this offensive alongside many other heroic battle groups, including the highly decorated and fully African American 369th Infantry Regiment, known at the “Harlem Hellfighters”. Tabor, unlike many of his compatriots, would return home without a scratch.

Lumber Business[edit | edit source]

Upon returning home from the war, Tabor would find his old construction job waiting for him and would continue working with the firm for several years. Following some time, he decided that the lumber supply business was far more lucrative than construction and started his own lumber business. Using the logistics skills he gained in the army and some savings, he purchased a portion or forest and a saw mill and started his business. While business was slow at time, Tabor was able to get just enough contracts to keep the company break-even, and by 1939, was poised to start making profits on the firm.

Passing[edit | edit source]

While the exact date of John M. Tabor’s death is unknown, he was last known to be living with his son and parents in Massachusetts, aged 50.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Education in the 1900s[edit | edit source]

Tabor’s time in college was an experience not shared by many during this time period. Having gone to school sometime between 1985-1905, Tabor would have fallen in a group of more privileged individuals. College was a pursuit for the wealthy or those few with just enough money and a desire to get ahead in life. Even then, college was no easy task to get through, as reported, "the median amount of schooling one would achieve in 1900 would only be around 7.5 years and the college graduation rate was only 20% in 1900" (Fischer and Hout 2006). Due to the Great Depression, these numbers fell steeply along with college enrollment.[8]

Segregation in the Armed Forces[edit | edit source]

The American military had last seen integrated forces in the American Revolution, when “thousands of African Americans, both free and enslaved, fought with distinction alongside their white counterparts throughout that war” (2013 Ray).[9] Following American independence, segregation within the armed forces grew larger.

Depiction of an eyewitness of the Harlem Hellfighters fighting for the French in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

During World War I, African Americans were allowed within the armed forces, but were not permitted to serve combat roles. African American divisions served as laborers who did more menial jobs and logistics support roles, and African American combat groups were all but non-existent.[10] One critical exception is the 369th Infantry Division. The Harlem Hellfighters, as they were known, were a fully African American division that was attached to the French Army in World War I, as they were not allowed to fight in the American Expeditionary Forces.

After the war, the French government bestowed the Hellfighters with the Croix de Guerre, the highest French military medal. However, despite spending more time than any American division on the front lines and suffering the most casualties of any combat group at 1,400, the Hellfighters were not even allowed to participate in the victory parade upon their return to New York.[11] The contrast between the experiences and treatment of a colored solider versus a white one is what led to the “Double Victory” or “Double V” campaign for African American troops during World War II.[12] The idea that they needed to secure victory against the Axis abroad and segregation at home is what led to Executive Order 9981, signed by President Truman in July 1948, which mandated the integration of the United States Armed Forces.[13]

Works Cited[edit | edit source]

African Americans and World War I [Internet]. 2011. Online. New York: Schomburg center for Research in Black Culture and the New York Public Library; [cited on: 2020 July 9]. Available from: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-world-war-i.html

Ancestry.com, 1940 United States Census.

Bryan, J. Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI. National Museum of the United States Army Archives. [Internet]. [date cited: 2020 July 7] Available from: https://armyhistory.org/fighting-for-respect-african-american-soldiers-in-wwi/#:~:text=The%20combat%20elements%20of%20the,diffused%20throughout%20American%20held%20territory.&text=With%20the%20creation%20of%20African,demand%20for%20African%2DAmerican%20officers.

The Double V Victory [Internet]. 2018 July 7. new orleans, LA: The National World War II Museum; [cited: 2020 July 12]. Available from: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/double-v-victory

Fischer, C, Hout, M. 2006 November. Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years [Print]. 1st Edition. New York (NY): Russell Sage Foundation. [Cited 2020 July 7]. Available from: https://www.russellsage.org/sites/default/files/Fischer_Hout_Tables%20Figures.pdf

The Historical Marker Database [Internet]. 2008 June 20. Anderson, South Carolina: The Historical Marker Database; [2020 February 28; 2020 July 7]. Available from: https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=10475

History.com Editors. 2009 October 28. Allied forces break through the Hindenburg Line. History.com. [Internet] [2019 September 25, 2020 July 12]. Available from: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/allied-forces-break-through-the-hindenburg-line

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

Jackson Marshall III, R. 2006 January 1. Old Hickory Division. NCpedia. [Internet]. [2006 January 1, 2002 July 12]. Available from: https://www.ncpedia.org/old-hickory-division

The National WWI Museum and Memorial [Online]. 2020. Kansas City, MO: National WWI Museum and Memorial; [2020; 2020 July 9]. Available from: https://www.theworldwar.org/explore/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/coming-home

Passengers in History [Internet]. Australia: South Australian Maritime Museum; [date cited: 2020 July 7]. Available from: http://passengersinhistory.sa.gov.au/node/931832

Ray, M. 2013 September 26. Executive order 9981. Encyclopaedia Britannica (online). [Intenet]. [2013 September 26, 2020 July 9]; Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Executive-Order-9981

Remembering the Harlem Hellfighters [Internet]. 2018 May 9. Washinton DC: National Museum of African American History and Culutre & The Smithsonian: [2020 May 26, 2020 July 12]. Available from: https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/remembering-harlem-hellfighters#:~:text=Some%20members%20of%20the%20Harlem,to%20the%20369th%20Infantry%20Regiment.

Walker, D. 2018 January 18. 100 years ago Camp Sevier in Greenville played a key role in fighting, ending World War I. The Greenville News. [Internet]. [2018 January 18, 2020 July 12]. Available from: https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/entertainment/2018/01/18/camp-sevier-greenville-played-critical-role-s-100th-anniversary-commemorated-remember-old-hickory-pr/1043588001/

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. The Historical Marker Database [Internet]. 2008 June 20. Anderson, South Carolina: The Historical Marker Database; [2020 February 28; 2020 July 7]. Available from: https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=10475
  5. Jackson Marshall III, R. 2006 January 1. Old Hickory Division. NCpedia. [Internet]. [2006 January 1, 2002 July 12]. Available from: https://www.ncpedia.org/old-hickory-division
  6. Jackson Marshall III, R. 2006 January 1. Old Hickory Division. NCpedia. [Internet]. [2006 January 1, 2002 July 12]. Available from: https://www.ncpedia.org/old-hickory-division
  7. History.com Editors. 2009 October 28. Allied forces break through the Hindenburg Line. History.com. [Internet] [2019 September 25, 2020 July 12]. Available from: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/allied-forces-break-through-the-hindenburg-line
  8. Fischer, C, Hout, M. 2006 November. Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years [Print]. 1st Edition. New York (NY): Russell Sage Foundation. [Cited 2020 July 7]. Available from: https://www.russellsage.org/sites/default/files/Fischer_Hout_Tables%20Figures.pdf
  9. Ray, M. 2013 September 26. Executive order 9981. Encyclopaedia Britannica (online). [Intenet]. [2013 September 26, 2020 July 9]; Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Executive-Order-9981
  10. Bryan, J. Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI. National Museum of the United States Army Archives. [Internet]. [date cited: 2020 July 7] Available from: https://armyhistory.org/fighting-for-respect-african-american-soldiers-in-wwi/#:~:text=The%20combat%20elements%20of%20the,diffused%20throughout%20American%20held%20territory.&text=With%20the%20creation%20of%20African,demand%20for%20African%2DAmerican%20officers.
  11. Remembering the Harlem Hellfighters [Internet]. 2018 May 9. Washinton DC: National Museum of African American History and Culutre & The Smithsonian: [2020 May 26, 2020 July 12]. Available from: https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/remembering-harlem-hellfighters#:~:text=Some%20members%20of%20the%20Harlem,to%20the%20369th%20Infantry%20Regiment.
  12. The Double V Victory [Internet]. 2018 July 7. new orleans, LA: The National World War II Museum; [cited: 2020 July 12]. Available from: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/double-v-victory
  13. Ray, M. 2013 September 26. Executive order 9981. Encyclopaedia Britannica (online). [Intenet]. [2013 September 26, 2020 July 9]; Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Executive-Order-9981