The World War I Memorial Project: Natchez, Adams County, Mississippi

The unveiling of a new (inclusive) memorial to the World War I service men and women of Adams County, Mississippi (the county seat being in Natchez) is now set for November 10th at 10:00am, 2011. In light of this event, a new introduction to an old story on the monument that appeared on the old Web page is called for.

In 2004, I faced an unknown audience in the Deep South, afraid I could wind up like Malcolm X, that is to say, shot to death on stage for saying or being something that was violating an inviolate "normal". I came to that point quite by accident, through my study of history as a graduate student at California State University Northridge and the Natchez Court House Project, run at that time by its founder, Dr. Ron L. Davis. It was an internship on that project in 2003, hosted by the Historic Natchez Foundation, that enabled me to study a seemingly forgotten and very forlorn Great War monument. It may not have been "Mississippi Burning" but both I and the audience were about to find out where an old image of the South ended and where "reality began". I told a group of some fifty people at the old Eola Hotel ballroom, in old Natchez, Mississippi, that a local monument with the names of some of their fathers and grandfathers was wrong. The list of some 523 names of World War I veterans on four bronze plates was of white veterans only, disregarding the names of over 520 black Army troops—it would grow in time to over 580 names—including combat troops—left off the monument in 1924. This was no clerical error; this was "Jim Crow".

By the winter of 2011 the data was confirmed and the date set for a new monument that honored all the veterans in alphabetical order, regardless of race. The older monument is set to be retired into a display documenting the era that produced it, with local photographs. This web page, while it was hosted on the mainframe at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), helped to spread the facts of the case. It was taken down by the Information Technology staff at CSUN when I was no longer a student. I, the author, can now be reached at: shaneone2@hotmail.com.

The Great War and Natchez, Adams County, Mississippi
Institute Hall

Many famous or unknown monuments and markers have been altered or questioned in the last many years by a new generation. According to Walkowitz and Knauer in Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation (Durham & London, 2009), even a major national monuments such as the Voortrekker Monument in South Africa have been altered to serve the changing needs of the nation. In 2010 a local movement grew to change a World War I monument in Adams County, Mississippi. This is a short history of the monument and efforts to change it, to date.

Many men (and few women), from Natchez and Adams County, Mississippi, served in the armed forces during the first World War during the years 1917-1918. This was during the Jim Crow era, with racial segregation throughout the south and in the armed forces. The photos below show the transformation of the old Institute Hall, located on Pearl Street in downtown Natchez, into a new United States Courthouse, with a monument to the men and women from Adams county who served in the War retained though the years bolted to the old hall.

The hall was built around 1850 as a school auditorium, and outlasted the institute it was created to serve. It had many uses over the years, not the least of which was as an Armory during the Civil War and World War I. At one time it housed the city library and the American Legion post. After years of fundraising, often with events staged in the old hall, a memorial was bolted to the square columns to rename it Memorial Hall in 1924. In the photo below, taken before stabilization work in 2004-2005, the squares on the building are the tarnished plates of the memorial to 523 white men and women who served in the war, with a star by the name of nine people who died doing uniformed service during the years 1917-1919. The four plaques forming a row are the name plates with the smallest and largest describing as well as naming the memorial.

The tablet that informally re-named Institute Hall, bolted over the doorway in 1924 read:

Memorial Hall

In grateful memory of the men and women of Natchez and Adams county who on land and sea and in the air helped to win the World War 1914-1918. They braved the hidden perils of the deep fought as their fathers fought of old died that "government of the people by the people for the people might not perish from the earth"

A smaller plaque, (below) seen to the left of the door, notes who created the monument, The Joseph H. Sharpe Chapter of the Service Star Legion. This group stated as a group called the War Mothers and with the main leader, Mrs. L. K. Sharpe. Joseph Sharpe was her son. The young Sharpe was killed while doing a solo airplane flight in likely in the final days of his training in how to fly the plane.

Photo of name plate reads MEMORIAL TABLETS erected by Joseph H. Sharpe Chapter Service Star Legion 1924
Photo of name plate erected by Joseph H. Sharpe Chapter Service Star Legion 1924

The group published a list of the names of who should be on the memorial in the local paper, The Natchez Democrat, on January 7, 1923. The story ran under the main title “Names of Service Men and Women to Appear on Tablets.” The story listed the rules that qualified the men and women to be on the list under the subtitle, “Roster of White Ex-Service men and Women who Entered the various services during the World War from Natchez Mississippi.” The committee then requested feedback for anyone that might have been omitted.

My own master’s thesis deals with who served in the war, both black and white, and what happened to them after the war. A federal roster of men who enrolled in Adams County shows some 581 Black men entered the Army from the county, not counting the greater Natchez "Metro" area. A movement to add the names to the monument or retire the old monument and create a new one seems to have both local and federal support. Changes to the monument would have to be done by the new owner of the monument the General Services Administration or GSA. On April 7, 2010 the online Natchez Democrat carried a story expressing concern by the GSA and plans to add the missing names. The story, “Black veterans' names may be added to courthouse plaques”, noted the interest in the plaques by the GSA with details following in a matter of months. This story seemed to be a response to an earlier story about questions made by the black community. The story, “Local tribute to WWI heroes excludes many”, ran March 14, 2010. By November 2, 2010 an independent group, New South, confirmed a new list of names and posted them in locations around Adams County, sending copies to all known interested organizations as well as running a story, “Names to be added to war plaques”, in the local paper. A deadline of December 2, 2010 was given for the people of the county to respond to the new list of names [Note: This is a 4 page Adobe pdf file.]

A web site that deals with the 1924 list of names can be found at World War I Service Men and Women from Adams County, Mississippi on the NatchezBell.org web site. According to state of Mississippi records, almost 1,000 men, both black and white, entered military Service from Adams County. Yet not all the people who served in the war who came from Natchez, the seat of Adams County, enrolled in the county or for that matter, in the state. Some men came from Concordia Parish, just across the Mississippi river from Natchez, and still more men wound up leaving the state to enlist in other units. Two of these out of state units were black National Guard regiments that fought in France, the 370th and the 369th. At least four black men from Natchez were in combat, with one man, First Sgt. James C. Minor, was killed on the front lines by shellfire. The story of his death ran in the Natchez Democrat October 22, 1918. Two other black troopers were badly wounded in combat. The best count from state records shows some 581 black men entered the Army from Adams County during 1917-1918. A survey of nearby Natchez National (military) Cemetery suggests that some 200 black Army Troopers came back to live in Adams County after the war. One of the men that seems to have come back was Sgt Louis L Roderick who went overseas to France with Company I of the 805 Pioneer Infantry. He died July 22, 1923 and was interred in Natchez National.

Note: The information on Sgt. Roderick's service was added by way of a reply to a (now deleted) posting attached to the Natchez Democrat story on the movement to add the names. A local man under the name “Americanhomeboy” claimed that none of the black men from Natchez had worn the uniform of the United States.

1850s Hall on Pearl Street, Natchez, Mississippi
1850s Hall on Pearl Street, Natchez, Mississippi

The four plaques that list the names are quite large, and when mounted on the old hall they are each the size of refrigerator door. To get some idea of what they look like you can bring up a photo of the list of names to the left of the Service Star plaque by clicking on names. By October 2007 work to convert the hall it into a new Federal Courthouse was completed, the plaques cleaned and put back up. The photo, by the author, below shows the hall as a courthouse.

photo of new courthouse on Pearl Street as it is today
Photo of new courthouse on Pearl Street as it is today