This photograph of Private First Class Albert Thompson, Jr. was taken in a photography studio while he served in France during World War I. In October 1917 the National Army assigned Thompson to the 302nd Stevedore Regiment in Camp Hill, Virginia, but whether he was drafted or volunteered is unknown. The conditions in the camp were very poor--upon arrival they had no shelter, few blankets, three mess kits for every ten men, and nowhere to bathe. Two months later Thompson's unit set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey for France.
In Europe, Stevedore regiments--formed of African American men--provided every variety of manual labor. At the port of Bordeaux, Thompson's regiment loaded and unloaded cargo from ships, reportedly 800,000 tons in one month or 25,000 tons on average per day.
In September 1918 the men of the 302nd were transferred to the 813th Stevedore Battallion of the Transportation Corps, part of the Service of Supply or SOS. Their new duties in "Graves Registration" made light work of their previous stint as dockworkers. The 813th, along with two other black regiments, removed 23,000 decomposing bodies from the battlefields of Romagne, France into the future Argonne National Cemetery.
Military and community leaders back home likened the black troops to Simon of Cyrene, the African who carried Jesus' cross to Golgotha. White American soldiers in France, however, spread word that the African American regiments were sent to remove the dead because the regiments were diseased. By the end of the war it was evident that the latter sentiment, which dismissed the black contribution to the Allied cause, largely prevailed. Black American soldiers were excluded from marching in the Allied victory parade in Paris, although black soliders from France and England took part. Fearing that black soliders would return to the U.S. with radical ideas of equality, military leaders restricted the movements of black soldiers in France. Upon their return home, especially in the south, African American soldiers were stripped of their uniforms, excluded from service organizations, and labeled cowards.
In 1919 Private First Class Albert Thompson, Jr. returned from France to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he died on July 16th of an unknown illness at age 23. He wasn't commended for his service until after he was buried on the 21st of July in Topeka, Kansas. In a large public ceremony on July 30, 1919, Kansas Governor Arthur Capper, Topeka city officials, and African American community leaders honored Thompson and other African American servicemen, particularly of the 92nd Division. Colonel Charles Young, a black West Point graduate, addressed the assembly. In her 1922 letter to the Kansas Historical Society, Thompson's mother, Alice, mentions that her son also received a diploma from France honoring his service and an unspecified memorial from Washington, D.C.
Barbeau, Arthur E., and Florette Henri. 1996. The unknown soldiers: African-American troops in World War I. New York: Da Capo Press.
Dalessandro, Robert J., Gerald Torrence, and Michael G. Knapp. 2009. Willing patriots: men of color in the First World War. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History.