by Matthew Gailani
World War I and the Story of Henry Alvin Cameron
On April 6, 1917, the United States of America officially entered World War I. The war itself started in 1914, shortly after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The United States managed to stay out of the war until 1917 despite terrible fighting around the world. This changed for a few reasons. Americans were being killed on ships sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean. The most infamous example of this was the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915. This angered many Americans and put pressure on the United States to enter the war. There was also the discovery of the Zimmerman Telegram that angered Americans even more. This telegram was sent from the German government to Mexico. It offered the Mexican government American land if they joined the war on Germany’s side. For these reasons and others, America joined the war in 1917. However, there was a problem. America didn’t have enough soldiers.
To fight overseas in Europe, America needed to add more soldiers to its army. It did this in two ways. One was to ask for volunteers. The other was to use the draft. The draft, or Selective Service Act, required all men of a certain age to register with the military. If their name was chosen, they would have to serve. In the end, around 61,000 Tennesseans were drafted during World War I and around 19,000 volunteered.
A photograph of soldiers in the segregated 93rd Division, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Despite the need for more troops in 1917, not all American soldiers were treated equally. 1917 was also a time of segregation in the United States, and the military was no exception. African American soldiers were forced to serve in segregated units, and because of racist beliefs, were often forced to do noncombatant work. In the face of this racism, many African American soldiers gave their lives during World War I. About 350,000 African Americans served in the military during this time, and over 17,000 African Americans from Tennessee served during the war. One of these men was Henry Alvin Cameron.
Henry Alvin Cameron.
In 1917, Henry Alvin Cameron, or Professor Cameron, was a 45-year-old teacher at Pearl High School in Nashville. He was actively involved in the community and coached multiple sports teams at the school. Cameron was born in Nashville in 1872 and graduated from Meigs High School in 1896. Later, Professor Cameron continued his schooling and attended Fisk University and Central Tennessee College.
Soldiers in the segregated 93rd Division, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Despite his age, Professor Cameron volunteered for the military in 1917 and was sent to Fort Des Moines, Iowa in the Midwest. At the time, this was the only place in the United States that trained African American officers. Here, he was commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant and soon found himself overseas in France. Professor Cameron was an officer in the 92nd Division when he was killed during fighting in the Argonne Forest on October 30, 1918. The war would end that same year. Professor Cameron was buried in France at St. Mihiel American Cemetery. Cameron School, later Cameron Middle School in Nashville, was named in his honor.
Infamous: To be famous or well known for a bad thing.
Register: To sign up officially, to be added to an official list.
Segregation: To separate into groups. In this example, to separate people based on the color of their skin.
Noncombatant: In this example, work that is done by a soldier that is not fighting.
When did World War I Begin?
When did the U.S. enter World War I?
Name two reasons the U.S. entered World War I.
What was Henry Alvin Cameron’s Job before he was a soldier?
Why do you think the military was segregated in 1917?
To learn more about Henry Alvin Cameron, visit Metro Nashville Public School’s website below!
Johnson, Donald L. “Henry Alvin Cameron (1872-1918)” (2008). Nashville Conference on African American History and Culture. 35.
Schools are often named after a famous person, place, or event. What is the name of your school? If it is named after a person who were they? If it is the name of your town, who is your town named after? You be the historian!
5.10- Summarize the events leading to U.S. entry into World War I, including the attack on the RMS Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram.
5.12- Describe the impact of U.S. involvement on World War I.
5.49- Describe Tennessee’s contributions during World War I and World War II, including: the conversion of factories to wartime production, the importance of Oak Ridge, and the influence of Tennesseans (i.e., Cornelia Fort, Cordell Hull, and Alvin C. York).
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.