Allison S. Finkelstein’s book Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917–1945 (University of Alabama Press, 2021) delves into efforts by U.S. women to commemorate World War I service by themselves and their loved ones. This sometimes took the form of contributing to the construction of memorials or establishing organizations where the women could continue their service to former servicemen and others as well as maintain ties with each other and seek to be remembered and recognized. Some stories are sad ones, such as accounts of indigent and disabled former women workers and the group of occupational therapists and physical therapists who did not succeed in obtaining veterans’ status during the lifespan of the organization. African American mothers could not join white chapters of an organization of war mothers, and they could only visit foreign cemeteries where their loved ones had been laid to rest on separate trips from white women. Frustrating is the lack of awareness that female WWI workers could bring skills to the U.S. conduct of WWII. The book underscores the need for continued discussion and recognition of U.S. women’s varied roles in World War I.
A follow-up to the crowdfunding campaign I spearheaded in 2016 to obtain a grave marker for Black composer-pianist and World War I entertainer Helen Eugenia Hagan in New Haven: the New Haven Symphony (with which Hagan performed) honored Hagan with its History Award on February 6. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D–CT) also inserted an item in the Congressional Record saluting Hagan’s achievements.
Today is the last day to RSVP for my talk on “DC Women in World War I” at the March 16 luncheon of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of DC (AOI), the oldest civic organization in Washington, DC. I’ll also be signing copies of my book In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I.
New Haven mayor Toni Harp mentioned Helen Eugenia Hagan—the only black musician sent to play for the AEF in WWI France and 1912 Yale alumnus—in her State of the City address on February 6.
• Read more about Hagan
• Listen to an excerpt from Hagan’s only extant composition, the Concerto in C Minor
The grave marker for composer and AEF pianist Helen Eugenia Hagan—supported by a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $1600—was unveiled on September 29 at New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery. As the organizer of the campaign, I was a speaker at the event. New Haven mayor Toni Harp declared the day “Women Making Music Day” in honor of Hagan (read the official proclamation).
Read articles on the unveiling (which also offer photos and some video):
Hagan was the only African American female musician to entertain the AEF in France (as part of the “Proctor Party” formed at the request of General John J. Pershing).
Here is the tentative program for the Sept 29th unveiling of the grave marker for Helen Eugenia Hagan, black pianist for the AEF and Yale School of Music’s first black female graduate. The ceremony will be held at 2 pm at New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery. This is the result of the crowdfunding campaign for the marker that I initiated.
The Hayward Unit of the National League for Women’s Service at 200 W. 139th St. in New York City opened a club for black soldiers and sailors in August 1918, providing a canteen, games and reading/writing rooms, accommodations, dances, and musical performances. The unit was named for Colonel William “Bill” Hayward, commander of the 369th Colored Regiment (aka the “Harlem Hellfighters“) that saw extensive combat in France and received the Croix de Guerre (Hayward’s son was Hollywood agent-producer Leland Hayward). What New York Did for Fighting Men states that between August 1918 and September 1919, the club entertained 40,000 men, with 5015 eating in the canteen, 11,527 using the dormitory facilities, and 6464 attending dances. Jobs were found for 883 discharged black servicemen.
Part of this unit was the “only colored women’s motor corps in the world,” according to a 1919 article by Frances Tilghman, NLWS publication secretary. Tilghman stated that the motor corps was composed of 40 women, three ambulances, two buses, and 12 cars. The women of the motor corps visited hospitalized African American service members and took convalescing black patients on outings such as sightseeing, ballgames, picnics, and carnivals. They also transported elderly people to church and orphans to amusement parks. Their service during the influenza epidemic was especially lauded.
The motor corps was credited with greeting 100,000 men. Tilghman lists the following women as its leaders:
• Captain Sadie Leavelle
• Lt. Mae Kemp (c. 1877–1926): a vaudeville performer who later appeared in the film The Call of His People (1921), which focused on a man passing for white. Kemp was involved with fundraising for and purchasing an ambulance that was sent to France. After she became ill with cancer, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson organized a benefit performance for her.
• Sergeant Pearl Murray
• Sergeant Anna Reid
In addition, Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era states that Lelia Walker Robinson, the daughter of black millionaire Madam C. J. Walker, volunteered with the unit for formal events and parades for the troops.
The ceremony to unveil the grave marker for composer-pianist Helen Hagan—the only black performing artist sent to World War I France—has been set for Thursday, September 29, at 2 p.m. at New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery.