PARKVILLE, MO (KCTV) -- Two Park University students and a professor are taking on a mission to right the wrongs of the past. They want to make sure African American soldiers from the Great War get the honor they deserve.
More than 375,000 African Americans put on a uniform and went to fight during the first World War.
“I like to refer to them as the forgotten soldiers of a forgotten war,” Josh Weston, Park University history undergraduate sophomore, said.
Not one of those soldiers received the highest honor the United States can bestow for valor when they came home.
“They weren’t even mentioned on the national scale as being active in this war,” Ashlyn Weber, Park University history undergraduate senior, said.
Weber, Weston and their professor, Dr. Tim Westcott, are doing a systematic review of military records. They’re looking for soldiers who were denied a medal of honor based on race or religion.
“There are records and documents from 1925 and previous from the United States Army Command Staff that we would not repeat those words today because they are very racist about African Americans in particular serving in the United States Army,” Westcott said.
Tim Westcott is a veteran himself.
So far, he and his students have identified 70 African American soldiers who were awarded a Distinguished Service Cross from the U.S. but no Medal of Honor.
Some of them were even awarded France’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor, the Croix de Gerre Palm.
It’s Josh Weston’s job to look through military records from the U.S., France and Germany to get a clear storyline of what each soldier did.
“They were severely wounded and still went out and were fighting for both the French and the Americans for the allied side and were given everything they had even though they weren’t, let’s just say, treated the greatest,” Weston said.
Weston is a veteran too.
He just wants credit given where it’s due.
“They fought beyond heroically and we need to honor that,” he said.
It’s hard work doing the research to prove what each soldier did 100 years ago, and to get enough information for the Department of Defense to review it.
Weber says there’s not much to go on when it comes to most black soldiers.
“Most of them are from farmland. Their parents were slaves. They really have no history that’s documented. So they don’t have paperwork that defends who they are,” she said.
All three members of the task force were appalled to learn about the conditions many of the African American soldiers lived in before the war; Little to no education, poverty, and segregation. Yet they crossed the ocean to defend their country and stand for freedom.
“Then to come home and not have any improvement in life. And in some sense, life could be even worse. Because of how you were affected by the war itself,” Westcott said.
Westcott has contacted descendants of a few of the soldiers they’ve identified, including the family of First Lieutenant Dr. Thomas Edward Jones.
74-Year-Old Emma Lapsansky-Weber remembers her dad as a doting father showing her around his Washington D.C. area farm. Often with his Italian-American best friend, the man Jones saved during the war.
Lapsanky-Weber only learned the whole story years later from doing research about her father’s time in the war.
Lieutenant Jones went into an open area subjected to direct machinegun fire to care for a wounded soldier. While dressing the wounded runner, a machinegun bullet passed between his arms and his chest and a man was killed within a few yards of him
“I’m proud of my father and the job he did. I’m proud of my father the life he made for himself and for us,” Lapsansky-Weber said.
Weber is a historian herself, writing books from what she learned about her father through his diary and other documents.
“There are two places in his diary where he talks about racism in the Army,” she said. “He recalls one white captain, and this a quote, ‘the captain who called our boys god--- n------.’”
She’s thankful for the Park University led effort to tell stories of black soldiers like her father.
But says she never felt like her father’s service went unnoticed.
Jones came home to a grateful church community, a Victorian house in the Washington D.C. area, and a loving family.
“I suspect that this is not the only situation. I suspect that this is a snapshot of something that was not universal but unusual,” she said.
Jones even noted in his diary comments made by Colonel William Hayward in France; “these black boys never flinched nor showed the least sign of fear, they will go down in history of brave soldiers.”
She knows not all black soldiers came home to a pleasant life though, even some who fought with valor worthy of our nation’s top honor.
It’s those soldiers the Park University taskforce hopes to identify.
“Many of these guys have been ignored before up until this point and really deserve to have attention given to them,” Weber said.
“We’re going to right the wrongs and not allow it to happen again,” Weston said.
There is legislation pending in congress that would give the Department of Defense the okay to review the Medal of Honor nominations past the 100 year deadline.
The group plans to also review records of Jewish, Hispanic, Asian and Native American soldiers.
The research project is funded by private donations. You can support it by donating to the George S. Robb Centre for the Study of the Great War.