World War I -- Life Histories/Section 019/Ernest Boyce McKissick

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Ernest Boyce McKissick served in the World War I 92nd Infantry Division. He is most associated with his son, Floyd B. McKissick, CORE activist, Soul City founder, and state district court judge.


Early Life and Education[edit]

Ernest Boyce McKissick was born in 1895 in Kelton, South Carolina. He moved to Spartanburg and then to Asheville, North Carolina in 1901-2. There, he attended Catholic Hill School until second grade. He sang for Hopkins Chapel of the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, where he met Dr. J.W. Walker. Walker hired McKissick for multiple jobs, including a horse-and-buggy driver, bellhop, and clerk for Young Men's Institute (Y.M.I.) drugstore.

When McKissick turned eighteen, Walker and other members of Hopkins Chapel contributed to McKissick's college fund. As a result, McKissick attended Livingstone College in 1913. He graduated in 1917[1].

World War I Involvement[edit]

In June of 1918, McKissick was drafted in the Colored Barracks of Camp Jackson, South Carolina. When he arrived, a measles breakout shortly followed, causing his transfer to the first artillery of Camp Merritt, New Jersey in August 1918. After a two-week training regimen, he was transferred to the 92nd Infantry Division. reaching France by September 1918.[2]

He stayed in the 349th Field Artillery, Battery F for the rest of the year. He saw 18-19 days of battle on the Western front until October 6, 1918.[3] Although he mainly served as a technology specialist, he had directly fought in Xon, France.[4]

His troop stayed on the front for one year, referring back and forth between Camp Issoudun and the trenches. Upon their return, the troop marched twenty-three miles from Pont-a-Mousson to Mousson to return to America. They landed in New York on February, 1919. McKissick himself transferred to Camp Lee, Virginia, before returning to Asheville.[5]

Postwar Life[edit]

During his involvement in the Great War, he kept in touch his fiancee, Magnolia Ester Thompson. They married upon his return to Asheville on October 8, 1919. To support his family, McKissick worked with the George Vanderbilt Hotel, Postal Service, and the Oteen Virginia Hospital.[6] They raised four children, all of whom eventually received undergraduate degrees and took on white collar jobs. The most famous of them was Floyd B. McKissick: the first African American enrolled in University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Law School in 1951.[7]

Mckissick finally retired 1957. He conducted interviews and oversaw the construction of Soul City with his son until his death in 1980.[8]

Social Issues[edit]

Southern Reception of the War[edit]

The June 1917 Espionage Act and the May 1918 Sedition Act enforced mandatory conscription throughout the United States.[9] [10]This spurred on different reactions between the ethnicities in the South.

A popular stance among upper-class whites claimed that African Americans should be drafted in place of their sons.[11] Others reported feeling uncomfortable with arming and training non-whites with weaponry. This stemmed from the mentality that armed African Americans would conduct revenge for previous injustices.[12] Administrative officers also reported that African Americans were not capable of fighting, since "they could not think for themselves."[13]

The African American community as similarly split. Many middle-class blacks followed W.E.B. Dubois' cry for patriotism for equality; as the Richmond Planet insisted, "Do not let us be chargeable with being disloyal to the flag."[14] Others, like McKissick, insisted upon fighting because America was "home… regardless of this prejudice and all." [15] Still others, however, evaded the draft and deserted in higher numbers than their white counterparts. This resulted in occasional upstarts like the Green Corn Rebellion.[16]

Ultimately, 370,000 African Americans stayed fighting in the War. This offset the universal disgruntled attitude that WWI was a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight.[17]

92nd Infantry Division[edit]

The 92nd Infantry Division was one of four colored regiments of the Buffalo Soldiers, an African American unit placed on the Western frontier.[18] It was also one of only two colored infantry divisions to be placed on the battlefield.[19] By 1914, the 92nd was composed of approximately 40,000 troops.[20]

Unlike their French-led companions in the 93rd, the 92nd primarily served white American leaders. Cultural differences differentiated their due reception. While the 93rd was praised as the "Harlem Hellfighters," the 92nd was caricatured as rapists and vicious militiamen instead. Many were transferred out or court-martialed without any justifiable claims.[21] However, according to McKissick, many did not take it personally; "it was just prejudice typical of the South."[22]

Despite these challenges, service in France enabled African American soldiers to work with the North and West African troops of the French military. Even newspapers back home like the Philadelphia Tribune proclaimed that they "attained widespread publicity and praise from French authorities and civilians," leading to later assumptions of France as a discrimination-free nation and role model of democratic rights.[23][24] Their travels overseas also expanded their outlook on their place in the world, too, popularizing sayings like "How You Goin' to Keep 'Em Down on the Farm" after soldiers had traveled the world.[25]

The 92nd Infantry Division finally returned to New York on February 15, 1919. Like many World War I soldiers, they were disillusioned. Like McKissick, many had felt that "Americans didn't really appreciate what they had done."[26] Despite the cold welcome, African American history pivoted upon their arrival. Black men and women could access citizenship. More black men were enlisted in the army. Demands for true democracy grew widespread - erupting race riots in cities like Washington D.C. and Chicago. Black massacres and lynchings spread from Arkansas to North Carolina, killing as many as eleven veterans at a time.[27] Under the leadership of Marcus Garvey, the African American community finally responded with "New Negro Movement": a progressive ushering in of African American culture.[28]


  1. "Interview with Ernest McKissick and Magnolia McKissick." Interview by Louis D. Silveri. Ernest and Magnolia Thompson McKissick Oral History. D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, NC, 28804, 23 July 2001. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
  2. McKissick, Ernest B. "Ernest B. McKissick Papers." Letter to Magnolia Ester Thompson. 1918-1991. MS. N.p.
  3. ^ McKissick, Letter. N.p.
  4. ^ Interview with McKissicks, 1977.
  5. ^ McKissick, Letter. N.p.
  6. ^ Interview with McKissicks, 1977.
  7. ^ McKissick, Letter. N.p.
  8. Kram, Mark. "McKissick, Floyd B 1922–1991." HighBeam Research, 01 Jan. 1993. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.
  9. Douglas, Smith J. "Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War." Ebscohost. Georgia Historical Quarterly, Fall 2006. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.
  10. Williams, Chad. "African Americans and World War I." Africana Age. African Americans and World War I, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.
  11. Murray, Paul T. "Blacks and the Draft: A History of Institutional Racism." JSTOR Arts & Sciences. UNC University Libraries, 1971. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.
  12. Wintermute, Bobby A. "'The Negro Should Not Be Used as a Combat Soldier': Reconfiguring Racial Identity in the United States Army, 1890-1918." Taylor-Francis Online. Patterns of Prejudice, 13 July 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.
  13. ^ Wintermute 2012, p. 290.
  14. "The West Virginia Democrats." Richmond Planet 8 Aug. 1908, Volume 25 ed., Number 36 sec.: 4. Virginia Chronicle. Library of Virginia. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
  15. ^ Interview with McKissicks, 1977.
  16. ^ Murray 1971, p. 61.
  17. ^ Williams n.d.
  18. ^ Wintermute 2012, p. 282.
  19. Willard, Wellington. "First Fighting Unit of the Famous 92nd Division: Has Arrived from Overseas Bringing Many of Our City Boys Who Fought on French Soil." Proquest Historical Newspapers. Philadelphia Tribune, 22 Feb. 1919. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.
  20. ^ Murray 1971, p. 58
  21. ^ Williams n.d.
  22. ^ Interview with McKissicks, 1977.
  23. ^ Williams n.d.
  24. ^ Willard 1919.
  25. ^ Interview with McKissicks, 1977.
  26. ^ Interview with McKissicks, 1977.
  27. ^ Williams n.d.
  28. "NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom - The New Negro Movement." The New Negro Movement. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.