Fighting for Democracy at Home and Abroad

Image: Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library, Digital Scriptorium

When war erupted in Europe in 1914, the United States was a nation steeped in racial divides. Discrimination was evident everywhere in the country and, in the south, ‘Jim Crow’ laws forced people of color to use separate and usually inferior facilities, denied them equal protection under the law, and condoned vigilante mob violence. Starting in 1915, a devastating boll weevil infestation ravaged the south, destroying cotton crops and putting thousands of African Americans out of work. It was during this time that African Americans began to flee from the south in search of safety, social equality and economic opportunity. Known as the Great Migration, close to 500,000 African Americans moved to northern cities in the largest relocation event America had ever seen.

While many historical accounts cite economic opportunity as the driving force behind the Great Migration, first hand accounts reveal that African Americans relocated primarily in an effort to escape increased oppression from black codes, including ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the southern states. In addition, the industrial economy was growing in the north and a freeze on European immigration made an abundance of low wage jobs available. Despite increased opportunities, racial unrest prevailed during the Great Migration and many African Americans experienced resistance and violence from white citizens as they settled in northern states. One notably violent event occurred in East St. Louis, Missouri on July 2, 1917, when a four day riot between white and black workers left 125 black residents dead.

Violence also erupted at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas when black soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry grew tired of racial discrimination by white citizens and police personnel. The soldiers marched to assert their rights and a riot ensued. 4 soldiers and 16 civilians and law enforcement personnel were killed in the conflict. The army court-martialed 110 soldiers. 63 were given life sentences and 13 were hung without due process.

Despite the violence, black press and civil organizations insisted that African Americans be given the opportunity to serve their country in the army. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress and stated “the world must be made safe for democracy.” These words resonated deeply in the African American community as they had yet to experience true democracy here in America. How could Wilson’s words be sincere if America set out to fight for democracy in Europe while people of color were treated like second class citizens at home? Viewing the conflict as an opportunity to prove their equality as citizens, African Americans were eager to join the fight overseas.

 The Famous 369th Arrive in New York City. Members of the 369th [African American] Infantry; ca. 1917 – 1919; Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165. 

African American draftees were assigned to the 92nd & 93rd Combat Divisions. However, the army assigned most African American soldiers to service units since many army officials believed that black soldiers were more suited to manual labor than combat duty. However, there were instances where African American soldiers did see combat; most notable was the 93rd Division 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters served in combat on the frontline for 191 days, ceded no ground to the Germans, and were the first regiment to reach the Rhine River after the Armistice. With the longest consecutive duration of service in combat in WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters received a regimental Croix-De-Guerre, one of France’s highest honors. They returned to the United States national heroes.

Unlike the 93rd Division, the 92nd Division did not enjoy the same recognition for their accomplishments and were treated inhumanely even as they served their country.  Depite being segregated during their training in the U.S., which impeded the unit’s cohesion and pride,  the 92nd Division served on the front lines with valor. However, the division faced significant challenges due to racist attitudes, particularly from commanding officers Lieutenant Brigadier General Bullard, and Col. Allen J. Greer. White army officials spread rumors about the black troops to French civilians, calling them rapists. Furthermore, the 92nd Division encountered their most challenging incident during the Allied Meuse-Argonne offensive in September 1918. During the offensive, the 368th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division failed to complete an assignment on the front lines. Ignoring the lack of training, equipment, and communicaiton provided to the men, army officials touted the incident as evidence that African American officers and soldiers were failures to the war effort. African American soldiers contested the slanderous assertions of the Army well into the post war period.

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Photo: From the BHC Research Library Collection

The first African American draftees to leave the City of Reading departed on October 27th 1917. A total of 8 men assembled in front of the Courthouse at 8 AM to begin their departure. The 8 draftees were seated in automobiles draped in American flags. A parade was led by the Cadet Band with the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in the World (I.B.P.O.E.W.) marching in front. The parade started at the Courthouse, made its way to 6th and Penn, marched down to 4th Street, counter marched to 6th Street, and then headed north on 6th Street to the Outer Station. According to the Reading Eagle’s account of the day “no lot of selected men received a finer farewell”. All lodge members carried American flags as the automobiles slowly moved out 6th Street. The Reading Eagle also noted that the men carried cards bearing the words: “Forward; to preserve for all mankind the freedom that the government of the United States has preserved for us; Reading Pa.” As the draftees and their families made for the Outer Station, the band assembled on the platform and all hats were removed for “The Star Spangled Banner.” The draftees were headed for Camp Meade, Virginia.

It wasn’t until August 5, 1918 when the second group of African American draftees departed from Reading for their service. 31 men gathered at the Baer Building at Court & Church Streets to embark on their journey to Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. At 7AM, a parade began and was led by the Reading Patriotic Committee, The Peerless Band and 400 family and friends. Most draftees were members of the I.B.P.O.E.W., or “colored Elks.” The Reading New-Times declared “A happier crowd of selected men never left the Outer Station” as the “good natured draftees” paraded toward the train depot singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Dixie.”

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William C. Gilyard was one of approximately 350,000 African American soldiers who served during World War I. After the war he moved to Reading, PA, seeking employment opportunities. As a trained blacksmith, one of Gilyard’s first jobs in Reading was with the American Chain and Cable Company, which later became Carpenter Technology. Van Gilyard, William’s grandson and the Vice President of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, says that even as servicemen in WWI, his grandfather and other African American soldiers were subjected to racism and unequal treatment.

“The majority of government officials believed that blacks should not be armed, or that they would turn and flee in the face of battle. That belief contradicts history because blacks served prominently in each war starting from skirmishes, fighting alongside first settlers, colonists, and during the Civil and Spanish-American wars, just to name a few. My grandfather served (in WWI) and he expected to have some equality when he returned home. But of course, when an African American (soldier) returned home and was walking the streets in uniform, it was frowned upon. They were sometimes jumped and their uniforms were torn off of them.”

Central PA African American Museum Vice President, Van Gilyard sharing about the African American experience during World War I

Even in the face of discrimination and unequal treatment, African Americans fought for freedom, both at home and abroad. Their legacy of service and accomplishment lives on today thanks to those who work to preserve African American history. In Berks County, the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum is a premier resource for local African American history.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

The Berks History Center thanks Van Gilyard, Vice President of the Central PA African American Museum, for providing research, resources and his personal contributions to this article. 



Bryan, Jami, “Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI,” On Point, 2003.

Swick, Gerald D., Wilson Jr., Joseph E., “Come Out Fighting – The 761st Tank Battalion/Deeds Not Words The 92nd Infantry Division,” World War II Magazine, 1998.

Harlem Hellfighters: Black Soldiers in World War I



Welcome Women’s History Guest Blogger: Hallie Vaughn

Just in time for Women’s History Month, the Berks History Center welcomes Women’s History enthusiast, Hallie Vaughan as a guest blogger on the BHC blog. In addition to being a longtime member, volunteer and presenter at the Berks History Center, Hallie will be contributing to the Berks History Center’s blog for Women’s History Month. 

Hallie Vaughan dressed as a “Hello Girl,” a WWI servicewoman phone operator in the BHC World War I & Berks exhibit.

My interest in Women’s History began in the 80s while I was teaching 4th grade in the Muhlenberg School District. It has probably always been part of my background, because I remember questioning, when I was a little girl, why girls were unable to participate in everything or play everything that boys were. But during my teaching career, I was looking for stories to enhance and interest students’ independent reading. Especially during what seemed like the long haul between New Years and spring break.

I heard about the movement to get women written back into history and March being National Women’s History Month. I went to the school and community libraries and took out biographies of some famous women. At first, I was unfamiliar with many of the women who I was reading about. The more I read, the more I was amazed at the accomplishments of American women, who most people, myself included, knew nothing about! I began to make copies of short stories, collect posters and make creative activities about these women to use in my classroom.

Throughout March, I would host a” Mystery Woman of the Day” contest where I posted a question each day like: “I was the first female doctor in America, graduating in 1847. Who am I?” I found a website sponsored by the National Women’s History Project, where I bought stickers, bookmarks, pencils, etc., for daily prizes. The school librarian and I worked with the students to write skits about famous American women and present the skits to the other 4th graders.

Each year teachers and other people began to give me posters or news articles or suggestions about an American woman to include in my activities. When I switched to teaching 3rd grade, I just continued with the women’s history events in March. Even now that I’ve been retired over 10 years, the 3rd grade teachers at the Muhlenberg Elementary Center still invite me to present a program to their current students.

After retiring, I began presenting programs to community groups, retirees, schools and basically, anyone who has an interest in women’s history! About a year or two after I retired in 2004, Sally Reading, invited me to begin teaching women’s history courses for Alvernia’s Seniors College. This is something I love doing and has become part of my fall activities. I have taught Women of the Revolution, Women of the Civil War, Suffering’ Suffragists, Berks County Women, Pennsylvania Women, Who Knew It was Women Who Could Make That Happen (Inventors), Explorers, Women of the Military, Ministry and Athletics, and more!

The amazing thing to me is how much I learn by teaching these classes. Another important piece of my background is the DAR-Daughters of the American Revolution. This group traces its ancestry back to someone who fought in or participated in the Revolutionary War.

In the 90s I had the opportunity to travel to Windsor, CT, where my Revolutionary War ancestor lived and fought with the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen. My mother was also involved in DAR and she’s the one who got me interested in this great organization. I have served as Historian, Chaplain, Vice-Regent and Regent of our Berks County Chapter. Eleven years ago we started an event called the Famous Ladies’ Tea to fund our DAR Good Citizens Scholarship. This event is still going strong and I have portrayed a different American woman each of the years.

I want to thank the Berks History Center for inviting me to present the Second Saturday program on March 10, 2018 about America’s First Soldiers – The Hello Girls, and write a blog about some awesome American women, from near and far. I look forward to your responses!

Weathering the Storm: Feeling the Effects of the Great War on the Homefront

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1
Reading Times, Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1

Winter 100 years ago was not unlike our current weather conditions; the winter of 1917-1918 was exceptionally cold. With a healthy accumulation of snow beginning in December and more on its way, temperatures dropped to the single digits as the New Year began.  The citizens of Reading and Berks County were presented with difficult challenges in January 1918. By order of President Wilson, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad had been taken over by the United States government. Nationally, the railroads were deemed inefficient for the government’s needs supporting the war effort. President Wilson appointed William Gibbs McAdoo as Director General of the Railroads. By taking control of all railroads in the United States, McAdoo’s task was to make the roads more efficient in freight transportation by eliminating competitive traffic between rival railroad companies. Locally, it would not be unusual for a P & R car to travel on the Pennsylvania Railroad line or for Pennsylvania employees to work at a P & R station. Both railroads were already cutting passenger services significantly because of the other hardship bestowed upon the local citizens – the shortage of coal.

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Reading Times · Wed, Jan 30, 1918

The origins of the coal shortage came from an act of the government and an act of nature. President Wilson appointed Harry A. Garfield to lead the Federal Fuel Administration (FFA), which was born out of the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917. The FFA was tasked with conserving energy through the managed use of coal and oil and the war effort was first in line to access the natural resources. After the war effort was satisfied, the remaining coal was distributed down to the state and county level through agents under Garfield. At the time, Reading’s fuel administrator was H.A. Acker. It was Acker’s responsibility to set and enforce the prices of coal on the local level. Coal supplies for the public had lessened since the creation of the FFA and was perceived by the public as a gradual inconvenience. However, the winter of 1917-1918 changed the gradual inconvenience to a severe crisis. The first page of the Reading News-Times would announce when coal cars would enter the city for distribution. Relief arrived in the January 7th edition of the News-Times when the headline proclaimed that 83 cars of coal had reached Reading for distribution.

Although the coal crisis had lessened, the coal supplies remained limited. Local citizens relied on coal to heat and light their homes.  In an effort to relieve the stress of the shortage on local citizens and to ensure that households had sufficient coal to keep warm, the FFA instructed businesses not essential to the war effort to shut down 3 days a week, starting on January 14, 1918. Three days later, in a drastic effort to curb the coal famine, the government ordered all businesses to close 5 days the first week. Every week thereafter, for a duration of 10 weeks, Sundays would become “lightless nights” and Mondays and holidays would become “coal-less days”. In Pennsylvania, the Blue Laws prohibited businesses from opening on a Sunday anyway and that day did not count towards the 5-day closure rule. On the first week of the order, Penn Street looked like Sunday for six days straight – all of the businesses were closed.  Day by day, the crisis brought new adjustments to combat the coal famine. Food stores, saloons and movie theatres were affected by the ban. Those who did not comply with the rules of the FFA were initially given an embarrassing lecture on their lack of patriotism, and subsequently, if they violated the ban again, were given a fine. Shortly after the ban, food stores were ordered to be closed by noon and movie theatres were allowed to remain open.

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Reading Times · Sat, Jan 26, 1918

Not everyone was happy to “live with less” as their civic duty in the war effort. Those who refused to go without risked the repercussions as Edith Grant of 139 Lemon St. learned. On January 24, 1918, Ms. Grant was arrested for hoarding coal with bail set at $300. She was charged with having 400 pounds of coal in her cellar and purchasing 1300 pounds on top that. She claimed she was ill and had no coal to heat her house. On the other side of the coal crisis, a York coal broker was held on $5,000 bail for selling coal above the price set by the FFA. Children would go door to door tagging coal shovels with cards prepared by the United States fuel administrator. The cards read: “Save that shovel of coal for Uncle Sam.” On the back of the card were 6 tips on how to conserve your coal supply.

In addition to feeling the effects of energy conservation, the people of Reading and Berks experienced other inconveniences as the war effort continued. Food was another area of national conservation. Meatless, wheat-less and pork-less days were enacted by the United States Food Administration, which was led by Herbert Hoover. Hoover did such an outstanding job heading the Belgium Relief while in London that President Wilson requested he return to the United States to lead the Food Administration. The local administrator for Hoover was Charles T. Davies and the policies enforced were similar to those of the FFA. The popular term regarding the Food administration’s policies was to “Hooverize” your food, or otherwise, to be satisfied with less. The call to restrict consumption as part of the war effort was widely regarded and expected of everyone. An article appeared in the Reading Eagle that former President William Howard Taft, on a trip to Lebanon, made a stop at the Outer Station for lunch. The newspaper reported that Taft, a man who weighed close to 300 pounds, “Hooverized” his lunch by ordering smaller portions than a man of his size would consume.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Jan 12, 1918.png
Reading Times  · Sat, Jan 12, 1918

While the war raged on overseas, the City of Reading had its own war to fight at home with the Reading Traction Company, operators of the city’s trolley system. The Traction Company proposed raising the fare for a street car ride from 5 cents to 6 cents, which prompted outrage from the citizens, the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Reading. The Traction Company wanted to raise the fare with no justification for the increase. The coalition of opposing forces demanded the Traction Company to make their case for the increase before they would determine if it was justified. The city hired John P. Fox of New York City, a widely known traction expert, to assess the necessity of the one cent increase. The issue dragged out for several months and was not easily resolved.

YMCA Building at 631 Washington Street. Postcard belonging to Richard Polityka

Today, while we can relate to feeling the effects of the winter’s wrath, we might be stretched to understand what it is like to feel the impact of war in our daily lives. 100 years ago, the people of Reading and Berks County definitely paid a price, trading in their comfort and excess to support their countrymen overseas.  Many felt as though it was their patriotic duty and nearly everyone kept close tabs on the state of the conflict in Europe. Jerry Edwards, Secretary of the YMCA of Reading would hold Sunday talks at the Reed and Washington Streets facility on the effects of the war on Europe. Edwards spent considerable time overseas, first in Egypt and then France where he served as a camp secretary at both locations. He returned from France in November 1917 to Reading, where he travelled to Dayton Ohio to conduct a lecture series on the conditions of the war. When he returned to Reading, he continued the lecture series at the YMCA Reading branch to capacity crowds in the facilities auditorium.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 


Holidays on the Homefront: Reading at Christmastime in 1917

Mon, Dec 17, 1917
Reading Times, December 17, 1917

On December 21, 1917, a Red Cross worker made his way up Penn Street toward the imposing iron gates of the Berks County prison. With him, he carried a service flag and 77 “gifts” to be distributed. Meanwhile, George H. Zellers was delighted serving in an English aviation camp and Sergeant Joseph Eisenbrown sent greetings home from Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia. 

The holiday season in Reading and Berks County during the first year of the American involvement in the Great War moved along at a normal pace, despite the additional distractions of war. New recruits were leaving the area for camp on a regular basis, knowing that they would ultimately participate in the war theatre in Europe.

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At the bequest of President Wilson, the Red Cross began a national campaign to raise $100 million to support soldiers and civilians affected by the war. The drive ran from December 16th to December 23rd and aimed to enroll 50,000 new memberships.  Adult memberships ranged from $1.00 to $100.00 and junior memberships were $0.25 each. The Mansion House at 5th and Penn Streets served as the headquarters for the drive. During that time, Penn Square was decorated with trees for Christmas and a large Santa was placed on the balcony of the Mansion House with a candle. Santa’s goal was to make his way to the other side of the balcony to light 50,000-membership candles by the end of the drive. On the first day of the drive, Reading was digging out of its second biggest snow in 5 days and 2 trainloads of coal were delivered to relieve the city of its coal shortage. The snow-covered streets made delivering the coal to city homes difficult, and in some cases, impossible.  Despite these poor conditions, the people of Reading were not deterred from making their way to Penn Street for their Christmas shopping.

Mansion House on 5th and Penn. BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

The Red Cross campaign was kicked off on Saturday, December 15, 1917, with the Penn Wheelmen providing inspiration. Riding a sleigh with a piano mounted on its deck, the Penn Wheelmen, led by Joseph M. Eshelman, William G. Rees and Paul E. Glase, sang patriotic songs through megaphones with various slogans of the Red Cross shouted between the songs. “We want 50,000 members! Where is your button? Have a heart and a dollar!” and “You will want a Red Cross emblem to shine in your window Christmas Eve,” were among the slogans shouted. The Boy Scouts contributed as well, raising a large Red Cross flag on the rooftop of the Mansion House. The first day of enrollment was quite successful, with 15,000 enrollees registered.

The drive brought interesting stories to the daily newspaper, like William H. Luden enrolling all 26 residents at the Boys Home on Schuylkill Avenue in the Red Cross. The most surprising participation in the drive was at the Berks County Prison in City Park. The prison raised a service flag because all 77 inmates at the prison enrolled in the Red Cross. Memberships were distributed as gifts to the inmates. At the same time, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Warden C. Herbert Schwartz on the charge of selling dope to inmates in July 1917. The Red Cross achieved its goal both locally and nationally. The amount of money raised in such a brief time was a monumental achievement; the $100 million at the time is equivalent to over $1 billion today.

Berks Prison in City Park. BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

Just before the Red Cross campaign began, Reading learned of its second casualty of the war on December 13, 1917. Martin Diebert, formerly of the 200 block of Front Street, was officially listed as a British casualty. At the time, Reading was beginning to experience lightless nights, an order of the fuel administrator in a effort to conserve the coal supply. By 9 p.m. only street lights were burning. The “Great White Way” of Penn Street was dark, making citizens well aware that the country was at war. Neighborhoods were also dark and an eerie feeling crept over the entire city.

The city experienced other unusual happenings as the citizens prepared for the first wartime Christmas. On December 18, 1917, a parade was held on Penn Street by the Foresters of America for Charles S. Rissmiller of Reading for his gold star. Rissmiller was a member of the Foresters and the first Reading casualty of the Great War. Also, the first coasting (sledding) casualty was reported December 20, 1917. Luther E. Schaeffer of 1223 Mulberry Street died when he and his brother hit a curb while coasting at the Spring Street Subway. Luther was steering when he and his brother wrecked. Luther complained of back pain but the boys walked home after the accident. The next day, after still complaining of pain, Luther’s father took him to the Reading Hospital. There they learned that he sustained an injury to his spine and he died two days later.

WWI Red Cross Pin from the BHC Museum Collection

While life at home was somewhat unsettling, soldiers stationed at camp or overseas longed to be back home. Many sent letters, which were published in the newspaper as Christmas day approached. From the trenches, H. L. Rourke, 18th Canadian Reserve Battalion, formerly of Reading, wrote of his willingness to give up his Christmas cheer for the trenches abroad. At the time he wrote to George Kemp, asking him to forward his address to his friend Will Keffer, who he didn’t know had died since he joined the 18th.

After he left Camp Hancock, Joseph Eisenbrown rose to the rank of Lieutenant by September 1918. He sent home war relics, which were displayed in G. O. Glase Carpet store on Penn Square. Eisenbrown later attained the rank of Major by 1939 and served in both World Wars. Lieutenant George H. Zellers of Morgantown wasn’t as fortunate. Engaged in a dogfight with German aircraft, Zellers’ plane was riddled with machine gun fire after he flamed two German fighters on July 30, 1918. Zellers managed to fly back to his own lines only to die after landing his damaged plane. In his December 26, 1917 letter, Zellers noted that he was a quick learner. Zellers excelled in training and became a trusted flier for the British as an American officer. Zellers was a 1911 Reading High School graduate and a biology teacher in Hazelton when he enlisted. The same day Zellers’ letter was published, Second Lieutenant Ralph M. Getz of Reading received a unique distinction – he was the first officer or enlisted man in the entire United States Army to be honorably discharged from the Great War.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 


WWI: Don’t Be a Slacker!

Reading Times,  October 2, 1918

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny day when Aaron Krick of Reading wandered along the railroad tracks outside of Dauberville on October 8, 1918.  At 65 degrees, it was a perfect day for a walk and Krick had no intention of breaking the law. Suddenly the young man was confronted by uniformed railway police. After being accused of trespassing and arrested, Krick was hauled before the Alderman. He was asked to produce his draft registration card, but acknowledged that he did not possess one. He did not know that the country was at war, he told the Alderman, and he had no intention of joining the army. Aaron Krick was a “slacker.”

When our country entered the Great War in April 1917, the U.S. Army was ill-prepared to wage war against Germany. President Wilson asked for an Army of 1,000,000 men, and at first, relied on volunteers to meet that quota. When the volunteer pool slowed well below the desired number of recruits, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed on May 8th that year. The Act required all able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft. Nationally, the draft was a success. 2 million of the 4.8 million men in service came from the draft. However, the number of men who “dodged” the draft nationally was somewhere around 325,000.

WWI Draft Cards, Berks History Center Museum Collection

The term slacker had its beginnings on a national level. One week after the United States entered the war, a column appeared in the New York Evening World, which described the many different slackers and how a slacker is “willing to die of old age for his country.” The article also spoke directly to the reader, stating that before you called someone out for being a slacker, you must first look at yourself and make sure you were not a slacker as well.

In the eyes of a nation at war, draft dodging was taken seriously. The dodgers were constantly sought by the Department of Justice, who were responsible for their prosecution. If, like Aaron Krick, a young man was of age and did not register for the draft, he was detained by the authorities. In the instance that a young man registered for the draft but did not report, they were sought by authorities and held for the actions of the Department of Justice. Such was the case with Pedro Gomenz and Eugene Berlanger, who evaded the call to the Fleetwood board by going to Reading. They were prosecuted and branded as slackers. If a man was rounded up as a slacker, his name was published and he was considered a traitor to the U. S. and a disgrace to the community.

slacker 1
Reading Times,  December 16, 1918

The term slacker also applied to those with actions that were deemed unpatriotic. If a man missed work in a plant that was vital to the war effort, he too was deemed a slacker. If a fundraising drive was held and someone refused to contribute, as an employee of Carpenter Steel did during a Red Cross drive, they were subject to ridicule by coworkers. Slacker Day was proclaimed at Carpenter Steel where anyone who did not subscribe to the Red Cross drive was subjected to the wrath of his fellow coworkers. One man who refused to contribute was met at the door, pinned down, and had a yellow stripe painted on his back. When he made it back to his feet, he was blasted with a fire hose as he left the property. Two other men who did not contribute to the drive discovered a sign mounted at their station in the water department which said, “There are two slackers here.” They claimed they had contributed and ripped up the sign. Their coworkers then posted another sign with an American flag draped over it. The two slackers were forced to contribute twice as much to the Red Cross as they had claimed. Then their coworkers made both men kneel and kiss the flag. One did so willingly while the other man’s actions did not go over well. He was chased from the area while women from another department threw stones at him as he left the facility.

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Reading Times,  November 15 1918

In Reading, Mayor Edward Filbert worked to break up the “loafing ring” of industrial slackers. He instructed city detectives to round up all industrial slackers and force them to work or hand them a jail sentence. Movie theatres, such as the Lyric, 808-810 Penn St., The Queen, 410 N 11th St., and the Majestic, 108 Oley St., showed moving pictures about slackers. The patriotic fever that was strong in this community during the Great War would not stand for anyone who “slacked” behind in their duties to their country and community. For some branded as slackers, jail might have been preferable than the wrath they faced in the community.

As for Aaron Krick, the man who wasn’t registered for the draft in October 1918 and claimed that he didn’t know the country was at war, he wasn’t completely honest with the Alderman in Dauberville. In September 1917, Krick was arrested in Reading for…being a slacker! Krick’s actual residence was Mohnton but he moved to Reading to avoid the draft and cause confusion as to which precinct he was registered. Krick continued to be investigated by police as late as 1921, when he was arrested at 9th and Penn Sts. on a charge of suspicion. Police believed he was wanted for being a draft dodger.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 


WWI & Berks Exhibit Opening at the Berks History Center

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The Berks History Center is pleased to announce the opening of a special temporary exhibit, World War I & Berkson November 10, 2017 from 5:00-7:30PM at the Berks History Center, located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

The exhibit is part of the World War I & Berks project, a year-long commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of World War I that examines Berks County’s contributions to the Great War and the effects the war had on our local community. The World War I & Berks exhibit, located in the Berks History Center’s Palmer Gallery, tells how Reading and Berks County responded to the nation’s call to arms through a remarkable eagerness to serve and unwavering patriotism.

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Additional stories are being shared on the Berks History Center’s blog and social media throughout the year. The project will conclude with a County-wide celebration and a day of special programs at the Berks History Center on November 10, 2018 for the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day.

The exhibit was curated by Richard Polityka, the World War I & BerksProject Leader and a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. Dave Unger, another long-time volunteer, assisted Polityka. The World War I & Berks exhibit is a true labor of love for both volunteers, who dedicated countless hours to the project.

Polityka said, “Working on this exhibit has been an amazing learning experience. I enjoyed having the opportunity to explore the Berks History Center’s collections and was surprised to discover so many fascinating stories about what life was like for people in Berks County during the first World War.”
The Berks History Center invites you to participate in the grand opening of this special gallery exhibit as we kick off the year-long project. The gallery opening includes a reception from 5:00-7:30PM and a special announcement at 6:30PM. Time-period refreshments will be served. Admission is $7.00 for adults, $5.00 for seniors, and free to BHC members. Admission includes access to all museum exhibits.

Home Over There: The Role of the YMCA & YWCA in the Great War

WWI YWCA Poster from the BHC Museum Collection

When America entered the Great War in 1917, it needed to draft, train and mobilize an army capable of waging war against Germany. Once recruited and trained, the troops arrived in France as early as June 1917 and, in earnest, by October 1917. At home, families and loved ones were deeply concerned for the well-being of the sons and brothers of America. Thankfully, the Young Men’s Christian Association, or better known as the YMCA, tended to the soldiers overseas, giving both peace of mind to families at home and comfort to soldiers abroad.

The YMCA’s involvement in the Great War did not begin with the American entry into the war. Three years prior to the start of WWI, the YMCA entertained and provided for British, Canadian and Australian soldiers in England and other fighting fronts. Viscount Bryce, former British Ambassador to the United States, wrote to E. C. Carter, secretary for France and England of the YMCA, commending their work.

“I can truly say”, Bryce writes in his letter, “that I have heard from every quarter, including many naval and military authorities, the warmest acknowledgement and excellent work done by the Young Men’s Christian Association during these three terrible years of war. Many plans have been devised, many methods successfully employed, to provide for their benefit comforts, recreation, literature of the right sorts and many other wholesome influences. I believe that the American Association which will have the benefit from our experiences, which will be worked with true American energy, and which may command larger funds than we had, may render the greatest possible services in France to those American soldiers who Britain and France rejoice to welcome as their allies in this fight for freedom and right”. This statement appeared in the Reading Times on August 4, 1917. Clearly, American involvement in the YMCA effort was as welcome to the conflict as the military strength that the United States offered to the allies.

The YMCA gave soldiers a place where they could get away from the harsh realities of the war. They organized canteens at the front lines in France. The huts or tents at the front lines were run by “Secretaries,” who provided writing materials, stock libraries, and sometimes, a gramophone and records. Nearly 1500 entertainers, singers, dancers and musicians met with troops in their off hours.

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Dances were organized in Paris and London. The YMCA had its own letterhead as volunteers helped soldiers write letters home. The organization produced pamphlets, raised money back home and provided religious activities. General John Pershing endorsed the YMCA on a popular poster (pictured above): “I have (had) opportunity to observe its operations, measure the quality of its personnel, and mark its beneficial influence upon our troops and I wish to unreservedly commend its work for the Army”.

At home, the YMCA offered free membership to guardsmen that guarded the train lines in the Reading area when the United States entered the war. At the outset of the war, the Lebanon Valley Bridge and the Peacocks Bridge were guarded against sabotage. Jerry H. Edwards, the secretary of the Reading YMCA left for Egypt in December 1916. When he left there were no indications that America would join the war. When he arrived at the Franklin Street Station in November 1917, he stated to friends who greeted him that he was “glad America came into the war”. Dressed in an army trench coat, he noted, “When I got off of my boat yesterday and walked up the street I looked at the flags and demonstrations of patriotism on every side. It was a revelation to me. It was a different America from the one I left”. The Reading Times reported Edwards was soon to leave for Dayton Ohio where he was to deliver a lecture at their city’s YMCA on the conditions of the war in Europe. The lecture supported a $35,000,000 national campaign to extend the work of the YMCA. He reported that YMCA’s evening concerts attracted 4,000 soldiers on a regular basis. He was in charge of the YMCA station in Cairo, Egypt, and ran a service hut in France for American troops.

WWI YWCA Poster from the BHC Museum Collection

The Young Women’s Christian Association, or the YWCA, aimed to support the war efforts as well. During WWI, the YWCA was responsible for forming work councils, operating hostess houses on camp grounds as well as manufacturing areas. Their mission was to do its share for men in uniform, with its main purpose to meet the needs of women and girls, including the wives and families of service men, nurses and employees at military posts, workers in war industries, and others directly affected by the emergency needs of the nation. The local YWCA formed a patriotic league for its members and concentrated on food conservation and Red Cross work. The Reading Times reported the members took the following pledge: “Realizing my nations need. I will express my patriotism by doing to the best of my ability whatever work I have to do. I will be dignified, thoughtful of the welfare of others, including women of other nations, careful to keep such standards of living as shall make me a good citizen. I will render whatever concrete service I can at this time to my country”. Throughout the Great War, the YMCA and YWCA made significant and critical contributions to the war effort.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.