BLACK HIGHLANDERS IN WORLD WAR I
Jean M. McNeill
Few people are aware of the role of Black Highlanders in World War I. Even fewer are aware of the role of Black Highlanders as combat soldiers on French battlefields during World War I. Two highly treasured volumes, copyrighted in 1919, and owned by Ashevillians document these statements.
The first source, Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War states: "The admission of Negro officers into Field Artillery units was only secured after a struggle. It seemed difficult to convince certain subordinate members of Secretary Bakers' staff that Negro men possessed the mentality and college training considered as a necessary prerequisite to being trained as Field Artillery Officers, but with the creation of the 349th, 350th, and 351st FA Regiments (all Negro organizations) the "ice was broken" and quite a number of Negro soldiers hailing from some of the leading colleges and universities in America, were trained as artillery officers".
Among the 700 officers commissioned at Ft. Des Moines were highlanders Second Lieutenant James Bryant Dickson of Asheville, N. C. and First Lieutenant George B. Greenlee of Marion, N. C.
Lt. Greenlee, the father of Mrs. Jesse Ray, a Trustee of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, was born in Marion, N. C., and educated at Kittrell College. He enlisted, was commissioned at Ft. Des Moines, and became a member of the 92nd Division. During his tour of duty, Lt. Greenlee was a cavalry officer at Camp Funston in Ft. Riley, Kansas. He saw service in France where he was much decorated with honors, including promotion to Captain, his rank upon his discharge. He eventually settled in Pittsburgh, Pa. where he worked for many years at the Bureau of Mines. He died in that city in February of 1975.
The 349th Field Artillery Regiment, 167th Field Artillery Brigade, was a unity of the 92nd division which was organized in November 1917 at Fort Dix, Wrightstown, New Jersey.
The second source, Modern Artillerymen, states in the Foreword: "This book, edited, written, and published by the enlisted personnel of Battery "F", 349th Field Artillery is typical of the men that made up that organization. It is a part of them. The same splendid spirit and tenacity of purpose is shown in publishing a volume under adverse conditions of army life that was shown by the men while in France on the firing line".
Among the men of Battery F, 349th Field Artillery Association were two Black Highlanders, James W. Johnson and Ernest B. McKissick, both of whom contributed articles to the volume.
One article written by First Sgt. William H. Smith is entitled
"History of Battery "F" 349th F. A.". He reveals:
We arrived at Brest, Finistere, France, June 27, 1918. We left Brest June 30, arriving at Montmorillon, France, July 2. Here we were cordially received by the civilian population. On the fourth of July, we paraded in that French city. We remained in Montmorillon until August 12. While at this place, Captain Noble M. Coe assumed command of the Battery. From Montmorillon, we went to La Courtine (Creuse) France. Here we received six weeks training with the French 75mm guns, concerning which we were absolutely unfamiliar when we arrived in camp . On October 13, we left Courtine in box cars for the firing line, arriving at the front a few days later. We first stopped at Toul, France on October 16. In the vicinity of this historic city, we took quarters at a modern French Fortress called Ville de Sec.
"After loading trucks with our guns, we departed from the fortress October 18, arriving at Ville au Val (Village of the Valley) on October 19. Here we place our guns in position on the night of October 20. Our Third and Fourth Sections moved their "pieces" to Atton where they took position in an open field. The other sections soon followed. Soon we were in a position near Mousson, an historic hill in the neighborhood of Pont-a-Mousson, from which a statue of Joan of Arc still stands unharmed notwithstanding the repeated shell attacks from the Germans during the war.
" Although our men endured man hardships and privations and came dangerously near being gassed, shell-shocked, or struck by falling shrapnel, they remained on the firing line until the enemy surrendered by signing the Armistice which went into effect at eleven o'clock, November 11, 1918. Fortunately indeed, we did not lose a single man in action.
" On February 25, 1919, we went aboard the "HMT Carolina" at Brest, and sailed for the USA, arriving at New York City, March 6. From here we went immediately to Camp Upton to await orders for demobilization."
The Managing Editor of Modern Artillerymen was Sgt. James W. Johnson, who was born in Asheville, N. C. on March 6, 1897. There is a photograph of Sgt. Johnson facing page 8 of Modern Artillerymen. Johnson graduated from Howard University in 1917. He attended The City College of New York for one semester during 1918, but left to enter the Army. Johnson was president of Battery "F", 349th Field Artillery Association, as well as Chief of Instrument Detail. After the war, Johnson settled in Washington, D. C.
The article contributed by the second Black Highlander, Ernest B. McKissick contained messages of congratulations to the 167th F.A. Brigade from General John J. Pershing and Brigadier General John H. Sherburne.
Ernest Boyce McKissick was born in Kelton, South Carolina on December 25, 1895, the youngest of six children born to the Reverend and Mrs. Elijah R. McKissick. Young McKissick went to Asheville, N. C. in 1900 and attended the first Hill Street School, a two-story wood structure headed by Principal W. S. Lee. He attended Catholic Hill School, working parttime at the YMI Drug Store, owned by Pharmacist Henry E. Jones. Shortly thereafter, McKissick became a live-in household helper alternately to Dr. J. W. Walker, Dr. Jones, Professor William J. Trent, and Professor W. S. Lee. These persons contributed much to his cultural and educational development.
As a member of the YMI, McKissick began singing with a group, among whose members was John Baird. McKissick became well known as a soloist with the group as well as an individual - for churches, social events, and civic programs. His tenor voice, once called "the mocking bird of the Land of the Sky", was heard regularly in the choir of the Hopkins Chapel AME Zion Church until poor health forced him to curtail his choir activities.
Mr. Alonzo McCoy, Dr. Walker, and Professors Lee and Trent began a scholarship fund to enable McKissick to enter Livingstone College in 1913. At college, his musical talent was further developed as he sang with the concert company, choral union, and college choir.
On April 29, 1918, McKissick was drafted into military service where he became a member of America's first black artillery unit. He served on the battlefields of France and was Honorable Discharged-Excellent on March 20, 1919. Seven months later, on October 8, 1919, he was married to Magnolia Esther Thompson, his college sweetheart.
McKissick worked for several years at local hotels. Prior to his Army service and following his discharge, he worked at the original Battery Park Hotel, a frame structure located near the present one. Subsequently he worked at the Langren on the corner of College and Broadway, today the site of a parking garage, and the George Vanderbilt Hotel, now the Vanderbilt Apartments. From 1932-1936, he worked as an insurance agent for North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. He was one of the first blacks to be hired at Postal Accounts during the early 1940's; later he was transferred to Oteen VA Hospital from which job he retired in December, 1957.
McKissick has been active in his church Hopkins Chapel AMEZ, throughout his life, serving as a member of the choir, trustee, and class leader. He earned the distinction of singing "The Palms" every Palm Sunday for 54 consecutive years.
As an Asheville citizen, McKissick is the oldest member of the original YMI, now merged with the YMCA. He was presented a 50 year Service Award by the American Legion, having held every office in the local unit and at one time State Vice Chairman of Division B. In 1947, he was selected to serve on the Grand Jury in Buncombe County, the first black to achieve this distinction. Active in the Democratic Party, he presently serves as second Vice-Chairman of Precinct #3, Claxton School.
Mrs. McKissick worked for 29 years as Cashier-clerk for North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. An expert bridge player, she is in demand socially as player and teacher. She is no less active in civic and political affairs.
The children of these Black Highlanders, like their parents, are professionally trained citizens in their communities. Mrs. Geraldine Pierce teaches exceptional children in Philadelphia, Pa. Attorney Floyd B. McKissick, formerly National Director of CORE, is founder and developer of the free standing new town of Soul City, N. C. Mrs. Frances Hines retired in 1977 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington, D. C. Mrs. Jean McNeill, who taught English in the D. C. Public Schools for several years, recently returned to western North Carolina to teach English at Charles D. Owen High School. Atty. McKissick, author of Three-Fifths of A Man, has numerous articles and speeches in publication. Mrs. McNeill will soon publish a full length volume of personal experience, End of My Sentence. The senior McKissicks have eleven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Battery "F", 349th Field Artillery Association. Modern Artillerymen (Philadelphia: Philadelphis Tribune Printers. 1919)
Scott, Emmett J.* Official History of the American Negro in The World War. (Washington, D. C. Scott. 1919).
* Special Assistant to Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker