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In 1917, the United States drafted 61,069 Tennesseans into the First World War; roughly 17,339 were African Americans from across the state. They were part of an eventual two million American servicemen who were transported to the Western Front to join our allies in a global war that had been underway since 1914.
African American and white men living in the rural south bore much of the burden for fighting this war. Although disproportionately drafted, most black conscripts did not normally risk the dangers of combat since they were assigned support roles, but the units of the battle-hardened 93rd Division and the renowned Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Division, were exceptions. Private Grant Shockley, the oldest of nine children raised on a farm in Sparta, Tennessee, entered the Army in April 1918. After training at Camp Meade, Maryland, Shockley sailed overseas in June, 1918, to join Company G of the 368th Infantry Regiment. He found himself in the thick of fighting in the dense, deadly sector of the Meuse Argonne region of northern France. By autumn, military officials realized how severely unprepared they were for the staggering losses and high casualty rates that averaged 2,550 a day.
On October 3, 1918, Private Shockley wrote to his parents Matt and Sallie:
“I have been experiencing natural warfare for I have been in the trenches for 25 days so I have been over the top.” Before closing, he reassured them that “I feel that I have been spared through the mercy of the Lord and I know he has been with me for he hath spared me up until now [,] While thousands have been cut out from the privilege which I now enjoy. I will be home some day.”
Private Grant Shockley died of wounds received in action just five days after writing this letter; one month before the armistice on November 11th that ended the long, ghastly war.
More than a decade after her son’s death, Sallie Shockley was invited by the U.S. Government to join a Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimage overseas to visit her son’s grave. When it was announced in the spring of 1930 that these pilgrimages would be racially segregated, Sallie joined a minority of older, mostly poor, black mothers who challenged the injustices of Jim Crow by writing the War Department, in what may have been the nation’s earliest organized civil rights protest. She penned a strong letter to Secretary of War, Patrick J. Hurley, protesting the conditions of their voyage, reminding him that her son had “answered the call to the colors, fought for democracy and lost [his] life for the same cause that the white soldiers did.” Ultimately, Sallie turned down the government’s invitation to join the pilgrimage.
Grant Shockley remains buried in the St. Mihiel American cemetery in Thiaucourt, France. He is also remembered on a veterans’ memorial on the courthouse lawn in Sparta.
Shockley’s story is featured in the museum’s World War I interactive display, part of the Change and Challenge gallery.
We welcome further information about this brave Tennessee soldier, or members of his family.
Lisa M. Budreau, Ph.D., is the Senior Curator of Military History at Tennessee State Museum and author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933, (New York University Press, 2010).