World War I -- Life Histories/Section 001/Ernest B. McKissick

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Welcome to the learning project on North Carolina during World War I!

McKissick during his interview with Dr. Louis D. Silveri in 1977[1]

Biography[edit]

Ernest “Mack” Boyce McKissick (December 25, 1895 – April 4th, 1980) was an African American North Carolinian who served in World War One.

Early Life[edit]

Ernest McKissick was born on Christmas Day in Kelton, South Carolina in 1895, the youngest of six children born to the Reverend and Mrs. Elijah R. McKissick.[2] His family moved to Asheville, N.C., then a ”small community” of around 15,000 people, in 1900.[3] In Asheville, he attended the first Hill Street School and Catholic Hill School and worked part-time at the YMI Drug Store and became a live-in household helper.[4] He quit school after the second grade but Dr. J. W. Walker “took an interest in him,” “found him work,” and, in 1913, helped raise enough money to send McKissick to Livingstone College, where his musical talent was “further developed” and he sang with the concert company, choral union, and college choir.[5]

McKissick in uniform.[6]

McKissick became a member of the Young Men’s Institute, where he was well known for his tenor voice, called “the mocking bird of the Land of the Sky,” and contributions to the community.[7] He sang regularly with the YMI and the choir of the Hopkins Chapel AME Zion Church until “poor health” later in life forced him to “curtail his choir activities.”[8]

War Service[edit]

McKissick was drafted into military service on April 29, 1918.[9] He served in France from 1918 to 1919 in America’s first black field artillery unit, the 349th Artillery Unit of the 92nd Division, which was organized in November 1917[10]. He was Honorable Discharged-Excellent on March 20, 1919.[11] His letters from this period to his college sweetheart and future wife, Magnolia Esther Thompson, offer little about his time as a soldier and focus primarily on discussing Magnolia’s life in Asheville and comforting her with jokes and romantic sentiments.

Later Life[edit]

McKissick married Magnolia Thompson on October 8th, 1919.[12] All four of their children finished college.[13] His son, Floyd S. McKissick, would grow up to be a renowned attorney, businessman, and civil rights leader, as well as the first African American to attend the University of North Carolina’s Law School.[14]

Like many other African American soldiers, Ernest B. McKissick became further involved in bettering his community in Asheville following his war service. He was the oldest living member of the Young Men’s Institute, a board member of the Mark St. Branch of the YMCA, and an “active member” of Hopkins Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, where he was a member of the Board of Trustees, a Class Leader, a member of the church choir, and “held the distinction” of singing the “Palms” every Palm Sunday for fifty-four years.[15] Additionally, he was a director of Boys State at Shaw University, Second Vice-President of Voting Precinct No. 3, a member of the Wolverine Social Club, and was the first African American to serve on the Buncombe County Grand Jury.[16]

McKissick passed away on April 4th, 1980 in Asheville VA Medical Center following a “long illness.”[17]. His funeral was held on April 5th, 1980 at Hopkins Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in Asheville, North Carolina.[18] His grave is in Violet Hill Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina.[19]

African Americans on the Home Front[edit]

Race Relations in the United States[edit]

President Wilson, pictured here in 1912, was a segregationist.

In the early twentieth century, the American south was ruled by Jim Crow, a social system of “legal segregation,” “political disfranchisement,” and often violent racial discrimination, and would until the mid-1960s.[20]

At the beginning of the war, many African Americans’ priorities at a local and national level were focused on domestic affairs as acts of racism, such as Woodrow Wilson’s executive order “sanctioning the segregation of federal employment,” the “widespread and enthusiastic” release of Birth of a Nation, and the “highly publicized” lynchings of Jesse Washington and Anthony Crawford in 1916, continued to be tolerated by white America even as cries for democracy and justice overseas grew as the war went on.[21] In the midst of this, many African Americans hoped their service in the Great War would prove to white America not only their “worth as citizens” but as people, as well as their “moral claim to more rights and opportunities”[22]. On April 2nd, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson sought a declaration of war against Germany from Congress and framed the United States’ involvement in the war as a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy”.[23] The ensuing national dialogue of democracy and self-determination resonated with African Americans and gave them hope for real social change and “true democracy” to be achieved, as it would be “insincere” for the United States to fight for democracy in Europe while simultaneously enforcing such enormous inequality on its own citizens.[24] However, the war’s “potential promise” for the advancement of African Americans’ “civil and political rights” was not immediately apparent.[25]

Race Relations in North Carolina[edit]

On par with many critics of the war at the time, some prominent black North Carolinians believed it was “hypocritical” for African Americans to “sacrifice” to the country’s cause of protecting democracy when they were deliberately excluded from that very same democracy and “forced to endure” such vile conditions at home.[26]

In his memoir, Bruce Wright, an African American soldier who served in the Massachusetts National Guard and 372nd U.S. Infantry, describes his experience while stopped in Camp Greene in Charlotte, North Carolina as particularly violent. “[We] were the first colored soldiers seen south of the Mason & Dixon line in full equipment since 1865,” Wright recounts, going on to say that “everything went well for an hour or so” until a fight broke out after a white man insulted one of the soldiers.[27] According to Wright, the soldiers suffered no causalities, though some had been shot and were returned to camp, and some of the white attackers had been “bumped off."[28] This incident lays bare the racial tension present in North Carolina and reflects the war already being fought at home – as Wright himself says about the fight, “the war began right then for us."[29]

African Americans in Combat[edit]

The Selective Service Act[edit]

Passed in May, 1917, the Selective Service Act “did not refuse African Americans the right to be drafted into the American army."[30] According to Mennell, the inclusion of African Americans had the potential to do three things that could change race relations in the United States for the better. First, participation could force white America to recognize and respect “the outstanding record” of African American soldier’s in the country’s wars.[31] Second, a “loyal, cooperative attitude” by African American soldiers could encourage whites to believe that “those who fight for their country are entitled to all its privileges."[32] Lastly, participation in the war was bound to raise African Americans’ “estimates of their own value to the nation” and inspire them to demand more from their country.[33] Over one million African Americans “responded to their draft calls,” and around 370,000 African American men were “inducted into the army."[34]

Race Relations in the Military[edit]

Overseas, the military created two combat divisions for African Americans: the 92nd Division, comprised of draftees and officers, and the 93rd Division, which included mostly National Guard units.[35] Within these divisions, the majority of soldiers were assigned to service units, reflecting a belief that African Americans were “more suited for manual labor than combat duty."[36] These segregated companies were commanded by white officers and were often subjected to the Army’s “discriminatory supply and pay policies,” often receiving “substandard” clothing, shelter, and social services.[37][38] However, the military did provide some opportunities unavailable at home to some black servicemen coming from southern, rural, or poverty-stricken areas, such as “remedial education,” “basic health care,” and exposure to different cultures in the country as well as across the sea.[39]

The 92nd Division[edit]

One of the only two black combat divisions to actually see battle, the 92nd Division also suffered from mass internal conflict. White army officials showed “little empathy” for black soldiers and often characterized the division’s soldiers as rapists and spread lies about them to French civilians, the former likely being a result of the white officers “greatly [resenting]” African American soldiers who had relationships with white Frenchwomen.[40] African American officers were considered a threat to white authority and consequently many were singled out for racist treatment, in some cases even unjustly transferred out or court-martialed on “bogus charges."[41] Despite “inadequate training” and racial discrimination, however, the division as a whole fought well.[42]

Race Relations in France[edit]

African American and French soldiers.[43]

For African American troops, service in France proved to be a “remarkable experience."[44] African American soldiers had the opportunity to spend time with North and West African soldiers serving in the French military and received a “warm welcome” from French civilians who, unlike white American soldiers, exhibited little “overt racism."[45] A French journalist referrs to the African American soldiers as "friends" and describes the generally pleasant relationship between French citizens and the soldiers, recounting instances of the soldiers playing with French children and of tears being shed on both sides when the soldiers departed.[46] These interactions contributed to the soldiers’ growing sense of displacement and ostracism in the United States and “expanded the boundaries” of how they viewed the world and their place in it."[47] Lemuel Moody, an African American soldier who served in France, noted his time overseas was “altogether improving and broadening… [It] changed my outlook on life. I see things now with different eyes."[48]

Movement Towards Civil Rights[edit]

McKissick's son, Floyd, was a renowned Civl Rights leader in North Carolina.[49]

Postwar America saw a resurgence of white supremacy and a drastic rise in racist violence. The war had become a “crucial test” of the country’s commitment to democracy and rights of citizenship for “all people, regardless of race,” but African American soldiers did not return to the peace and victory they had fought for overseas.[50]

The United States’ narrative of equality and democracy in regards to the war fueled the early stages of the civil rights movements as African American soldiers heeded W. E. B. DuBois’ call and “[returned] fighting,” renewing anti-racist activism that fought to change race relations over the next decade.[51] Participation in the war allowed African Americans to “assert their citizenship,” “hold the government accountable,” and “protest racial injustice” with increased visibility and unity.[52] Supported by a renewal of racial pride and a deepened commitment to combat social injustice, African American’s activism shaped the World War One era into a turning point in African American history and set the stage for the post-World War Two civil rights movement.

Readings and other resources[edit]

Each individual page may link to other North Carolinians involved in the war, or a suggested reading selection. For example:

Project Subpages[edit]

References[edit]

  1. "Ernest and Magnolia McKissick Oral History." Interview by Louis D. Silveri.University of North Carolina at Asheville D. Hiden Ramsey Library Special Collections/University Archives. D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, NC, 28804, 23 July 2001. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  2. McNeil, Jean M. "Black Highlanders in World War I." Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  3. "Ernest and Magnolia McKissick Oral History." Interview by Louis D. Silveri.University of North Carolina at Asheville D. Hiden Ramsey Library Special Collections/University Archives. D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, NC, 28804, 23 July 2001. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  4. McNeil, Jean M. "Black Highlanders in World War I." Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  5. McNeil, Jean M. "Black Highlanders in World War I." Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  6. "Ernest and Magnolia McKissick Oral History." Interview by Louis D. Silveri.University of North Carolina at Asheville D. Hiden Ramsey Library Special Collections/University Archives. D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, NC, 28804, 23 July 2001. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  7. McNeil, Jean M. "Black Highlanders in World War I." Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  8. McNeil, Jean M. "Black Highlanders in World War I." Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  9. McNeil, Jean M. "Black Highlanders in World War I." Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  10. "Ernest B. McKissick Papers." The Southern Historical Collection. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  11. McNeil, Jean M. "Black Highlanders in World War I." Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  12. McNeil, Jean M. "Black Highlanders in World War I." Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. The University of North Carolina at Asheville, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  13. "Ernest and Magnolia McKissick Oral History." Interview by Louis D. Silveri.University of North Carolina at Asheville D. Hiden Ramsey Library Special Collections/University Archives. D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, NC, 28804, 23 July 2001. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  14. "Ernest B. McKissick Papers." The Southern Historical Collection. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  15. "Ernest B. McKissick Papers." The Southern Historical Collection. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  16. "Ernest B. McKissick Papers." The Southern Historical Collection. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  17. "Ernest B. McKissick Papers." The Southern Historical Collection. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  18. "Ernest B. McKissick Papers." The Southern Historical Collection. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  19. "Ernest B McKissick (1895 - 1980)." Find A Grave. N.p., 8 June 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
  20. "Introduction to the Home Front." North Carolinians and the Great War. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  21. Williams, Kidada. They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I. New York: NYU Press, 2012. Project MUSE. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  22. "Introduction to the Home Front." North Carolinians and the Great War. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  23. "Woodrow Wilson." The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  24. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  25. Williams, Kidada. They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I. New York: NYU Press, 2012. Project MUSE. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  26. "Introduction to the Home Front." North Carolinians and the Great War. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  27. Spencer, Tracey L., and James E. Spencer, Jr. "World War I as I Saw It: The Memoir of an African American Soldier." Massachusetts Historical Review 9 (2007): 134-65. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  28. Spencer, Tracey L., and James E. Spencer, Jr. "World War I as I Saw It: The Memoir of an African American Soldier." Massachusetts Historical Review 9 (2007): 134-65. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  29. Spencer, Tracey L., and James E. Spencer, Jr. "World War I as I Saw It: The Memoir of an African American Soldier." Massachusetts Historical Review 9 (2007): 134-65. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  30. Mennell, James. "African-Americans and the Selective Service Act of 1917."Journal of Negro History 84.3 (1999): 275-87. Ebsco Host. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  31. Mennell, James. "African-Americans and the Selective Service Act of 1917."Journal of Negro History 84.3 (1999): 275-87. Ebsco Host. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  32. Mennell, James. "African-Americans and the Selective Service Act of 1917."Journal of Negro History 84.3 (1999): 275-87. Ebsco Host. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  33. Mennell, James. "African-Americans and the Selective Service Act of 1917."Journal of Negro History 84.3 (1999): 275-87. Ebsco Host. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  34. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  35. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  36. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  37. "Introduction to the Home Front." North Carolinians and the Great War. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  38. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  39. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  40. Mennell, James. "African-Americans and the Selective Service Act of 1917."Journal of Negro History 84.3 (1999): 275-87. Ebsco Host. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  41. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  42. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  43. Scott, Emmett J. "Chapter XX With Our Soldiers in France." The American Negro in the World War. Chicago: Homewood, 1919. N. pag. Emmett J. Scott. The American Negro in World War I. Table of Contents. Brigham Young University. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.
  44. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  45. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  46. Scott, Emmett J. "Chapter XX With Our Soldiers in France." The American Negro in the World War. Chicago: Homewood, 1919. N. pag. Emmett J. Scott. The American Negro in World War I. Table of Contents. Brigham Young University. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.
  47. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  48. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  49. Floyd McKissick, CORE. N.d. Tougaloo College, Tougaloo. Civil Rights Movement Veterans. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.
  50. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
  51. "Introduction to the Home Front." North Carolinians and the Great War. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  52. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. New York Public Library, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.