Tomorrow marks the 156th anniversary of Juneteenth, the oldest commemoration marking the end of slavery in the United States of America. Frederick Douglass, a former enslaved person himself, even referred to it as the second Independence Day. Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day, the word “Juneteenth” is an amalgamation of “June” and the “19th.”. Let’s turn back the hands of time for a moment and look at what happened 156 years ago.
On June 19, 1865, federal troops under Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to deliver an unexpected but welcomed order to the enslaved population living in and around this city located on a barrier island. General Order Number 3 states as follows: Read more
With this blog post, I’ll be taking us back, once again, to World War II. You may already be familiar with the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, which functioned as the women’s reserve branch of the Navy during WWII. While we did have a previous blog post on the WAVES and what some of their members did when serving at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE), with this blog I’d like to delve a little deeper, and talk about two specific WAVES: Lt j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, the first African American women to join the WAVES, and the first African American officers in the WAVES.
We often think of WWII as being a general call to arms, an “all hands on deck” time in our history. Despite this sentiment and the genuine need for troops, the military often barred or refused to enlist African Americans. While the Women’s Army Corps (or the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps until 1943) and Army Nurse Corps allowed African American to enlist in 1942, they were both segregated institutions. The Navy’s WAVES, the Coast Guard’s SPARS, and Navy Nurse Corps did not integrate for several more years. Despite the racist policies and practices put in place by the military, many African Americans (and BIPOC) continued to fight against these bigoted policies and attempted to enlist. Read more
It began a few years ago with a handful of old, unlabeled photos. Images of workers who placed the bricks and the cinder blocks for the Museum’s walls and also installed the statues on Lions Bridge and in the Park. They were literally part of the very foundation of our Museum. Then the questions began. What were their names and their stories? Why were they so important to our Museum, but we didn’t know who they were? What we found, and are still finding, has evolved into one of the most interesting, impactful, heartbreaking, joyous, and eye opening projects we have ever worked on. A project we named “Hidden Histories.”
The earliest beginnings of the project actually started from several other initiatives. A quest to gather as much information about our Park and grounds as possible, and a look forward to our 100th Anniversary coming up in 2030. The emphasis on our Park is part of a long term project focused on issues like conservation, sustainability, ecology, preservation and the history of the area. This work has helped with the formation of our new Park Department which was announced earlier this month. The 100th Anniversary project is taking a look back at our history and also a look forward to see where we are headed in the future.
Both projects led to the discovery of photos showing the men who did the construction on our Museum and Park. As well as a number of images showing members of our Museum team dating from the 1930s and beyond. The photos are part of our Institutional Collection that documents what happens here. They include famous visitors, parties, exhibitions, large artifacts arriving, personnel photos, and just about anything else related to our day to day activities. While we knew what types of photos we would find in the collection, we didn’t anticipate finding out what we didn’t have. The men’s identities and a realization that despite our Museum’s focus on inclusion and connections within our community, we hadn’t made a connection with ourselves. In the 91 years since the first of those photos were taken, we hadn’t made a connection with the men who were the very foundation of our success. And the hard truth is that because of who they were, no one in the 1930s thought it important enough to label these images and ensure they would be known by their names and faces. The time was way overdue to correct this.Read more
Some time ago, I wrote a post about a Black entrepreneur in the Baltimore area whose name was Capt. George Brown. As a young man he experienced the degradations of the Jim Crow system while riding the rails, vowing that one he would create a first-class transportation experience for Black people. And he did it! He also built a memorable pair of amusement parks where Black citizens of Baltimore could go and be safe and enjoy themselves. Today, I want to write about Marcus Garvey, a Black man whose dreams for his people were much larger, who was much more complex, and who was far more controversial than Captain Brown.
Marcus Garvey, like George Brown, believed in the power of ships and transportation to change the lives of Black people all over the world. He founded the company, the Black Star Line, as an embodiment of that dream to link the 400,000,000 people of color around the globe with the continent of Africa. But his story did not end up quite so well as George Brown’s.
Marcus Garvey and his mission
I wish I could speak authoritatively about Marcus Garvey, the man who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) in 1914 and the Black Star Line in 1918. I have little expertise in the area, and Garvey is such a complex figure. Add to that a shortage of archival evidence about the man, fires during the London Blitz having destroyed many of his personal papers. The FBI, who relentlessly investigated Garvey as the foremost Black “agitator” of his day, also seized and destroyed many of the papers of the UNIA.
I can, however, tell you that he was born in Jamaica in 1887, into a family of poor but well-read, property-owning people. He had ambition, and concluded very early that the problem that thwarted him was the same that faced the entire Black race. Both could be solved by a version of Pan-Africanism, that decided that there should be a strong link bringing together the peoples of the African Diaspora with the continent of Africa itself.
The seeds of a Dream
Garvey thought that he, and his UNIA, could provide such a link with a transportation company of steamships that facilitated travel back to Africa. His notion was that Black people, not colonizing Europeans, would be more successful at trading with Africans, and that there was vast untapped wealth in the continent that they, the peoples of the Diaspora, could extract at fair prices and ship to places that wanted them. With this wealth and capital, Garvey said, would come the improvement of the lot of Black people everywhere. Peoples of African descent everywhere would demonstrate their self-worth to themselves and to the world, and White peoples, seeing this, would deal with them as equals. It was, indeed, “universal negro improvement” that Garvey was seeking. The key to it all was the Black Star Line.
Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line
Before I go further into the story, I want to acknowledge two very important sources of information about the Black Star Line for me, as a non-expert. First is the really excellent blog post by Hannah Foster from 2014, found here. A second source the terrific biography by Judith Stein found in our Library called The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (University of Louisiana Press, 1986). Where you see page numbers listed, those are from Stein’s book.
Getting it off the ground
Now all of you who know something about the transportation business will immediately grasp the problems Garvey was facing. One problem is capital, and how to get it. Captain George Brown, in Baltimore, had just enough cash to charter a steamboat from another Black entrepreneur to generate an income stream. He was an experienced mariner and also managed to keep his boats in repair at prices that did not endanger his business, which was another potential problem.
Marcus Garvey, on the other hand, hit upon another solution for capital in post-war New York: stocks. Blacks all around the country had amassed a certain amount of money from their labor during the war effort. Like everyone else, they viewed speculation as a means to get rich and were open to the idea of investing. Rather than court White institutions, Garvey’s innovation was to harness the resources of Black people, to buy one or more stocks for $5.00 apiece in the Black Star Line (p. 71). Here is an example of one sold to William J. Hill that is in the Museum’s archives.
The price of even a cheap vessel for oceanic service at that time was somewhere between $150,000 and $500,000. That’s a lot of stock! But Garvey had a gift few possessed, the gift of soaring rhetoric, of a persuasive vision, and of a sense of missionary zeal. He was a magical speaker, by all accounts. He and UNIA chapter members managed to buy eventually 3 ships: Yarmouth (1887), Shady Side (1873), and Kanawha (1899). Yarmouth, the first, was to be renamed Frederick Douglass.
Dealing with the practicalities of owning ships
So Garvey and UNIA were making a go of getting the capital together! But then the second problem arose. Unlike George Brown, none of them knew anything about the business. They made, honestly, terrible business decisions. The vessels they bought were old and worn out. Yarmouth sprang a leak on its first outing and needed repair on its return. Garvey felt pressure to get the ship back out with a cargo of distilled liquor that he negotiated a price by the ton for. The experienced master of Yarmouth blew up at him, told him that the yard had not fitted her out for transporting liquor, and that his price per ton was ridiculously low for such a cargo. Garvey also had decided to allow an engineering firm to repair Yarmouth that essentially fleeced him. It was emblematic of the business problems the UNIA and Garvey faced.
The side wheel steamer Shady Side
So UNIA decided to sell even more stock to buy more ships, to try to dig themselves out of the hole they were in. The owner of Shady Side, a Hudson River ferry, persuaded Garvey that she would be an excellent summer excursion boat from which he could make a huge profit (p. 94). So Garvey bought it, and operated it in the summer of 1920. Over the winter, however, whether from rot, from ice or from storm, she sank and her owners declared her a total loss. Black Star Line had to take the insurers to court for the $5,000 claim that they refused to pay.
Steam yacht Kanawha
UNIA also bought the Kanawha, a small yacht that Garvey said would be useful for the inter-Colonial trade in the Indies. However, the price he paid for the 375-ton vessel, about $60,000, was exorbitant. A merchant mariner friend warned Garvey that the boat’s operating expenses would exceed its purchase price. He also pointed to defective boilers and auxiliaries, but Garvey went ahead anyway (p. 96). A boiler explosion on her first trip as the Antonio Maceo killed a crewman. The Coast Guard towed her back to New York, never to sail again.
Garvey’s Dream of the Black Star Line Destroyed
To top it all off, UNIA had to siphon off the proceeds from the sale of stocks to fund the budget deficit caused by a failed restaurant venture (p. 89). The Black Star Line was, by 1922, practically bankrupt.
The court case: Garvey Vs. U.S.A.
All of these business problems and improprieties came out in a federal court case, Garvey v. U.S.A. Federal authorities arrested Garvey on Jan. 12, 1922, and a grand jury indicted him for mail fraud on Feb. 16 (p. 192). The indictment claimed that the UNIA’s mailer soliciting funds for a ship named Phyllis Wheatley was fraudulent, because they implied that Black Star Line already owned her. They did not own her, in fact. They were looking for a ship to buy they would name Phyllis Wheatley.
By this time, Garvey’s many enemies, both within the Black community and without, gave evidence against him. The FBI, who under J. Edgar Hoover wanted to frame Garvey’s political activism as a communist threat, had been looking for a deportable charge against him for years. They found this one. A jury found Marcus Garvey guilty in March of 1923. The judge in the case, whose fairness at the trial drew praise from black journalists, ended up imposing the maximum sentence after Garvey damned his entire ethnic group (the judge was Jewish) in public. Despite appeals, and with an official pardon from President Calvin Coolidge, Immigration authorities deported Marcus Garvey on Dec. 2, 1927 (p. 207).
A Mariners’ Museum connection
An interesting coda to this saga is that in our collections is a folder of Black Star Line materials in the Elwin Eldredge Collection. Eldredge, who refers to himself as a “student of History of American Steam Navigation”, wrote a letter to the UNIA merely trying to find out what happened in all this to the Yarmouth. It was a ship he had sailed in many times, he writes. A letter came back on UNIA letterhead. You can read the contents of both these letters below.
Marcus Garvey lived in a different world from the one we find ourselves in today. He was, and remains, a lively and controversial figure. But for me, and for The Mariners’ Museum and Park, he is something of a forerunner. He believed in the power of ships to bring people together, people who are naturally connected to each other despite the miles and the oceans that keep them apart. And he created an institution, the UNIA, that he believed would ultimately “promote the public welfare,” just as Archer Huntington did when he created this Museum. He wanted Black people to believe in themselves and elevate themselves. I think he’d agree with my favorite drag superstar, RuPaul, when he says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna’ love somebody else? Can I get an Amen! up in here?” I think we could all use a dose of that.
He stands there, tall and proud, gazing into the camera, a backdrop of the United States Capitol behind him. Dressed in a high-collared wool uniform with a corporal’s rank insignia sewn on his right sleeve, Benjamin Harrison Splowne had reason to beam. Drafted in June 1917 into the National Army, he was promoted to the rank of corporal within a few months of his induction.
Exactly where and when this photograph was taken is subject to speculation. It is conceivable that it was taken in Newport News, as Benjamin Harrison Splowne was stationed at Camp Hill, Virginia for a brief while in 1917. In fact, he was promoted to corporal on November 16, 1917 at Camp Hill, shortly before shipping overseas. The Museum is fortunate to have his promotion certificate, along with his studio portrait, for they help document the often-overlooked role of African American soldiers during World War I, both in Newport News as well as abroad.
As Adriane Lentz-Smith relates in her work on African American and World War I, nearly 400,000 African Americans served in the armed forces during the war, with over 200,000 of them serving overseas. Serving in a segregated Army, Blacks were keenly aware of the opportunities and challenges that service provided. In Lentz-Smith’s words, “serving America meant establishing their central place in the national community and reaffirming their foundational place in the state. For African American soldiers, serving America also meant proving their manhood – asserting themselves as courageous and capable, independent and deserving of honor.” Many wanted to prove that “Colored Man is No Slacker,” as the poster from 1918 illustrated below states, albeit using language that we would not use today.
Newport News in the Great War
The Port of Embarkation was established in Newport News in early 1917. In the months that followed there was frenzied construction of the camps and infrastructure that would allow the United States to ship more than 288,000 American troops and 58,000 horses and mules, along with millions of tons of equipment, supplies, and ammunition through the Port of Embarkation to the fighting fronts in Europe. Newport News would become the second largest port of embarkation in the United States.
In order to accommodate the troops and material moving through the port, the Army built four military camps, each serving a specific function. The camps can be seen in the map below.
Camp Stuart, the largest camp, was built to house entire units of soldiers awaiting transport overseas. It is in the upper right corner of the map.
Camp Hill, located just north of the Newport News city line, handled motor vehicles and the Animal Embarkation Depot.
Camp Morrison consisted of supply warehouses and staging areas for Army Air Service personnel. It is in Warwick County, just beyond Hilton Village.
Located between Hilton Village and Camp Hill, Camp Alexander housed African American soldiers, in line with the segregationist policies of the United States Army of that era.
Camp Alexander was established in August 1917 as part of the Port of Embarkation. Named for Lt. John H. Alexander, the first African American graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, it was used as a “temporary quartermaster camp, consisting of a stevedore cantonment and labor battalion encampments, located on east bank of James River, Warwick County, immediately north of Camp Hill, and about 3 miles from Newport News.” A detail from the above map shows Camp Alexander adjacent to Hilton Village. Administratively, Camp Alexander fell under the jurisdiction of Camp Hill.
Camp Alexander had the capacity to house nearly 10,000 troops. This included stevedore and labor battalions slated to ship overseas, in addition to port support personnel. Unfortunately, very few images of Camp Alexander and the men who passed through there are known to exist. Corporal Splowne will have to stand in for his many compatriots.
Corporal Benjamin Harrison Splowne
Benjamin Harrison Splowne was born in Stephens City, VA on February 1, 1890. According to his draft card, dated June 5, 1917, he resided in Montclair, New Jersey but worked in a blast ice lab for A.M. Manufacturing Company in Dunbar, Pennsylvania at the time of his induction. Assigned to the 303rd Stevedore Regiment, Quartermaster Corps, National Army, he arrived in Newport News and trained while waiting to be shipped overseas.
Like so many of the Stevedore Regiments, the 303rd was destined to serve overseas. Little did Splowne and the members of his regiment know that instead of shipping out of the nearby port of embarkation, the regiment would sail out of Hoboken, New Jersey on December 4, 1917, on board George Washington. Shortly after its arrival in France, the 303rd Stevedore Regiment was transferred from the Quartermaster Corps to the Transportation Corps, and broken up into the 813th, 814th, and 815th Stevedore Battalions. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to learn with certainty which battalion Splowne was assigned to. I can state with certainty that Splowne returned to the United States in July 1919, sailing from St. Nazaire on board USS Eten.
More than 200,000 African American soldiers served in France. The vast majority worked in service units organized under the Service of Supply, unloading provisions and equipment destined for the front lines. Emmett Jay Scott, a prominent author, journalist, and confidant of Booker T. Washington, served as Special Assistant for Negro Affairs to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker during the war. He noted that the work of the “Negro Stevedore Regiments and Labor Battalions, and their unremitting toil at the French ports – Brest, St. Nazaire, Bordeaux, Havre, Marseilles—won the highest praise from all who have had an opportunity to judge of the efficiency of their work. Every man who served his country in one of these organizations was as truly fighting to save his country as though he had carried a rifle and killed Germans.”
The poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, perhaps best known for her poem, Solitude, visited France in 1918. According to Scott, she read her poem, The Stevedores, in front of a large crowd of African American servicemen.
We are the Army Stevedores, lusty and virile and strong;
We are given the hardest work of the war, and the hours are long.
We handle the heavy boxes and shovel the dirty coal;
While soldiers and sailors work in the light, we burrow below like a mole.
But somebody has to do this work, or the soldiers could not fight!
And whatever work is given a man, is good if he does it right.
We are the Army Stevedores and we are volunteers;
We did not wait for the draft to come, to put aside our fears.
We flung them away to the winds of fate, at the very first call of our land,
And each of us offered a willing heart, and the strength of a brawny hand.
We are the army stevedores, and work as we must and may,
The cross of honor will never be ours to proudly wear away.
But the men at the front could never be there,
And the battles could not be won,
If the stevedores stopped in their dull routine
And left their work undone.
Somebody has to do this work, be glad that it isn’t you!
The patriotic service of African American stevedores like Benjamin Harrison Splowne at home and abroad during World War I was critical for the successful outcome of the war. We should strive to remember the service of individuals whose identities are known to us, along with those whose names have faded from our collective memory. More importantly, we must continue to commemorate the service of every American who served in the Great War. It took all Americans to make the world “Safe for Democracy.”
Suggestions for further reading:
Lentz-Smith, Adriane. Freedom Struggles. African Americans and World War I. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Rainville, Lynn. Virginia and the Great War. Mobilization, Supply and Combat, 1914-1919: Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland and Company, 2018.
Scott, Emmett Jay. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War. Homewood Press, 1919. In particular, see Chapter XXII, The Negro in the Service of Supply.
Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War. Zone of the Interior: Territorial Departments, Tactical Divisions Organized in 1918, Posts, Camps, and Stations, Volume 3, Part 2. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1988.