A Picture Worth A Thousand Words: Great War Discovery Reveals Heroic Action By Black WWI Soldier

“Hold it gently” my grandmother said as she handed me a sepia photo of a Black World War I soldier. This was my first memory of collecting military photographs. At only twelve years old I wanted to know more about this soldier and learn about his experiences during the Great War. To this day I am unable to find anything about that soldier nor how he was associated with my family. That lost connection inspired me to chronicle the lives and achievements of the Black people in my WWI collection.

In 2019 a photo came up for auction that at first glance was generic. There were no people in the photo, nothing that would stand out, other than the bombed-out building and the words “Tel. Exch Pont-a Musson” written on the bottom. It was however listed with a 92nd Division provenance. The 92nd, known as the Buffalo Division, was one of two infantry divisions made up of African Americans that saw combat during WWI. Unlike the 93rd Div., who were loaned to the French army, the men of the 92nd served under the US flag. Exploring the back of the photo, the original owner describes the events of November 10, 1918, when a 5 1/2-inch German artillery shell landed in the building being used as the telephone exchange communications center for the 92nd Division. According to the note on the back two people were killed, and the writer suffered from hearing loss for three weeks. I still did not find the image to be exciting, but it documented the 92nd and the cost was insignificant, so I thought why not?

Front of photo with “Tel. Exch Pont-a Musson”
Back of photo detailing that attack.

After the photo arrived, I did my usual inventory, but I was still curious if I could find anything else on the incident described on the back of the picture. I consulted Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War by Emmett J. Scott published in 1919. This book not only documented the attack but revealed the heroic deeds of Sgt. Rufus Ballard Atwood and his actions in the dilapidated building.

December 6, 1918

The Division Commander desires to call the attention of the entire command to the excellent work and meritorious conduct of Sergeant Rufus B. Atwood, 1974547, 325th Field Signal Battalion. On the morning of November 10, 1918, while returning to the switchboard in Pont-à-Mousson, a shell struck the house in which the switchboard was being operated, breaking all the lines. Sergeant Atwood rendered valuable assistance to the officer in charge in reconstructing the switchboard and connecting new lines under heavy shell fire. When the ammunition dump began to explode in the same neighborhood, he remained on the job, tapping new connections. After repairs were made from the first explosion, there were two to follow which completely wrecked the switchboard room and tore out all the lines which were newly fixed. Sergeant Atwood was left alone, and he established a new switchboard and the same connection they had at first. The coolness with which he went about his work and the initiative he took in handling the situation justifies his being mentioned in orders.

Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War

Born March 15, 1897 in Hickman Kentucky, Rufus Ballard Atwood was the son of Pomp and Annie Parker Atwood. His father was born in the closing days of the Civil War in 1864 and may have been born enslaved. Atwood’s’ parents grew during Reconstruction and saw the possibilities that were blossoming for Black Americans. Unlike his parents, Rufus Atwood was born during the Nadir era and the Jim Crow laws made American looked much different than it had a generation prior. Despite the national setbacks, the family was able to send their children to school including Rufus, who entered Fisk University in 1915. However, he paused his education in February of 1918 to join the army when the US entered the Great War. He was assigned to the 325th Field Signal Battalion of the 92nd Infantry Div. and was promoted to the rank of corporal.

The 325th was the only Black signal unit in the US Army during WWI. The battalion was made up of Black men from around the country and contained a high percentage of college graduates or those who had spent some time in college. Many of the men were recruited due to their radio expertise, electrical engineering backgrounds and other technical skills they learned in college. The men trained at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio. Atwood and his fellow recruits learned all the fighting skills of front-line troops as well as the technical skills needed to be in the signal corps. They utilized older technology including carrier pigeons, semaphore flags, and the telegraph while learning to use newer technology like aerial mapping, telephones, and radios. Today phones and radios are commonplace, but in 1918 they were rare commodities, especially among those who grew up in rural communities like Atwood. The primary job of these soldiers was to maintain communications for the entire 92nd Division. The battalion was divided into three companies – Company A, the radio company, Company B, the wire company, and Company C, the outpost company, where Atwood served. The 325th boarded the troop transport USS Orizaba in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 10, 1918 and arrived in Brest, France on the 19th. These brave men later fought in the Meuse-Argonne campaign which ended the war.

Not much is known about his time in the army prior to his commendation, however he was recognized in dispatches for his actions. Atwood was one of over 400,000 Black men who sailed to Europe to “make the world safe for democracy”. Ironically, the democracy Atwood and his Black comrades were fighting to protect in Europe did not exist in the United States. Most Black servicemen and women experienced freedom and equality for the first time while serving overseas. Jim Crow laws did not exist in France, Belgium, England, or Germany. Europeans embraced the Black Doughboys too much for the sensibilities of American commanders, so a secret telegram was sent to French officers requesting Black soldiers not be treated as equals lest Black soldiers expect equality when they return home. Since the American Revolution African American soldiers have fought a double war, fighting the enemy on the battlefield and white supremacy when they return home.

Sergeant Rufus B. Atwood, 325th Field Signal Battalion Image courtesy of Kentucky State University

On September 2, 1919, Atwood was discharged and was able to resume his education as Fisk graduating in 1920 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He married Mabel Edith Campbell in 1921 and completed a second undergraduate degree at Iowa State Agriculture and Mechanical College (now Iowa State University) in 1923. Historically Black Colleges and Universities stress giving back and investing in Black communities. Atwood took that call and dedicated his life to educating Black students, serving as a professor, dean, and president of various HBCUs including Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) in Texas, and Kentucky State College for Negroes (now Kentucky State University). During his tenure at Kentucky State, he led the way for the school to be accredited as a four-year college and while many HBCUs closed their doors in the wake of the Brown vs Board ruling, Atwood kept the doors of the school open and even enrolled white students. He retired in 1962 after serving the college for 33 years, making him the longest-serving president of Kentucky State University. He passed away March 18, 1983 in Cincinnati, Ohio leaving a huge legacy of students and staff that he impacted.

Rufus B. Atwood was unknown to me prior to purchasing this photo, but it is stories like this that inspire me to interpret the lives of Black and Brown people long after they are gone to keep their accomplishments, their legacies, and their memories alive.

“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”― David Eagleman

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