Patriotism was running high during the ensuing years of the Great War in Asheville. The African American community was also contributing to that sense of nationalism with the same wholehearted appeal of those in the white community that lived alongside them. From the outset of the Great War, they left a lasting legacy of nationalism in Asheville that is still remembered today.
Figure 1 was taken on April 10, 1917, and shows part of a parade as it passes Paul Roebling’s Haywood Building that was under construction at the time. This section of the parade was African American men marching in unified loyalty for the Democratic cause. There were nearly 5,000 people participating in the march, and in fact, African American physician Dr. J.W. Walker was one of the keynote speakers at the march.1
Since the first African Americans arrived on North Carolina’s coast in the 16th century, they began leaving their mark on the history of the state. By the Great War years, several African Americans were beginning to look at Asheville as an area of economic possibility. Indeed, a man by the name of Ernest W. Pearson was one such enterprising gentleman and he left a lasting legacy on the town. Born in Burke County, North Carolina, Mr. Pearson had studied at the Chicago School of Law, and returned to the North Carolina mountains of Asheville armed with the skills to become a successful businessman. Mr. Pearson opened a grocery and confectionary store in West Asheville for the African American residents there, and went on to organize North Carolina’s first NAACP chapter.2
Mr. Pearson also organized the first Semi-Professional African American baseball team in Asheville. During the Great War years, American identity and culture were in a constant state of flux, but the one constant in many American lives was baseball. Asheville itself was home to several baseball teams and with the work of Mr. Pearson the African American baseball team, the Asheville Royal Giants, was formed. Baseball helped supply a sense of normalcy to many Americans during the Great War years.3
African Americans from Asheville served their time in the Great War on the front lines as well. There were many African Americans all across the country who were willing to serve in the nation’s military units, despite the fact that most black regiments were still segregated from their white counterparts. In fact, U.S. Army combat units were kept strictly segregated. In the South, African American men were less likely to be exempted than white men and more likely to be drafted. Partly due to the NAACP’s efforts, the first African Americans became commissioned officers as captains and lieutenants during World War I.4 Notable African Americans from the North Carolina mountains were neighboring McDowell County’s First Lt. George Greenlee and Asheville’s own Second Lt. James Bryant Dickson. On April 29, 1918, Asheville’s Ernest McKissick was drafted into the Great War as a member of America’s first black artillery unit. Eventually, McKissick would serve on the front lines in Xon, France. Later the World War I veteran would say about his unit, “Now there’s one thing about this that people didn’t know we were doing. This battery of artillery was the first in the history of the United States that was Negro manned. 349th, 350th was field artillery… that was our heavy artillery. That’s 351st. We served in that and stayed on the front, I think, six months….” 5
These African Americans, the like of E.W. Pearson and Ernest B. McKissick, illustrate the lasting legacy many left in both Asheville and the greater Southern Appalachian region as a whole during the Great War years. For through their vision and determination, a sense of inspiration for the African American community remained behind long after the Great War years were over.
Figure 1: “Patriotic Parade on Haywood Street,” Photo Taken 4/10/1917, Image L325-DS, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Figure 2: “Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection- E.W. Pearson, Sr,” Photo Taken 10/24/1937, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville
Figure 3: “Asheville Royal Giants,” Photo Taken 7/4/1916, Image B319-5, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Figure 4: “Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection- Ernest B. McKissick,” D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina Asheville
- “Patriotic Parade on Haywood Street,” Image L325-DS, NC Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina.
- Kevan D. Frazier, Legendary Locals of Asheville (Mount Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2014), 22.
- Chris Holaday, ed., Baseball in the Carolinas: 25 Essays on the States’ Hardball Heritage (Jefferson: McFarland, 2002), 47.
- Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri, The Unknown Soldiers: African American Troops in World War I (Boston: De Capo Press, 1974), 40, 57, 142
- Transcript, McKissick Ernest Oral History Interview I, July 23, 2001, by Dr. Louis D. Silveri, page 5, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville. Online: http://toto.lib.unca.edu/findingaids/oralhistory/SHRC/mckissick_ernest.pdf. (April 20, 2015).