Berks History Center to Open 100 Year Old Time Capsule on the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice

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The Berks History Center will commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day on November 10, 2018 with World War I & Berks, a day of programs and events, including a time capsule opening at the Berks History Center, located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

Please join us for a day of education and entertainment as we commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War I. The day will begin with two consecutive programs that explore the challenges and triumphs of the Great War through the eyes of a local WWI soldier with presentations by William Richardson as he reads and interprets his father’s WWI diaries. From the Frontlines: Diary of a WWI Soldier – Part I will begin at 10:00AM and will be followed by Part II at 12:30PM.

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Photo: William Emanuel Richardson, front row, far left, without a hat, with 313 Machine Gun Battalion, shipboard on the Mercury, on his way to France in 1918. The officer sitting next to him, Lt. Parsons was killed in the Meuse Argonne fighting. From William F. Richardson.

Presenter, William F. Richardson is the son of William Emanuel Richardson, who served in the Great War. Richardson will read and interpret his father’s journal entries in a dramatic presentation that demonstrates the realities of the WWI experience. Richardson is a Berks County native and now lives in Golden, CO. Richardson’s father, William Emanuel Richardson, was born in Berks County in 1886. William’s extensive diaries and writings during this period reveal a profound patriotism, a hopeful idealism, and a keen understanding of the context and background of events as they unfolded. They also reveal a young man’s search for both adventure, and romance.

Admission to From the Frontlines: Diary of a WWI Soldier – Parts I & II is $5.00 for members and veterans and $8.00 for non-members. Both programs are included in the admission price.

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1918 Time Capsule that will be opened on November 10, 2018

At 6:00pm the Berks History Center will reveal the contents of a 1918 Time Capsule during an unveiling ceremony. The Time Capsule Opening Ceremony is free to the public.

The day will conclude with a special performance by the Reading Choral Society. The Reading Choral Society’s World War I & Berks Concert begins at 7:30pm in the Berks History Center Connor Auditorium. The concert will pay homage to Reading’s Liberty Chorus, which was founded in 1918, and will feature music popular during the era of the Great War.

Tickets for Reading Choral Society’s World War I & Berks Concert are $5.00 for member and veterans and $8.00 for non-members. Tickets must be purchased in advance and do not include admission to From the Frontlines: Diary of a WWI Soldier – Part I & II. Call 610-375-4375 to purchase tickets.

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Launched in November 2017, the World War I & Berks project, was a year-long commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of World War I that examined 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 with a remarkable eagerness to serve and unwavering patriotic displays. Additional stories about World War I were shared throughout the year on the Berks History Center’s blog and social media. Program attendees are invited to tour the World War I & Berks exhibit along with all of the other galleries and exhibits in the museum.

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The Phenomenon of the Liberty Chorus

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Bandshell Pavillion in City Park, c. 1918, BHC Research Library Collection

The Great War was a constant exercise in patriotism for the citizens of Reading and Berks County. Citizens were asked to support the war effort through Liberty Loan drives, which were followed by Red Cross drives and ongoing petitions to purchase War Savings Stamps. Meanwhile, the YMCA and YWCA required more young men and women to do their part in the name of victory for the soldiers fighting overseas. Amidst all these demands for local citizens to fulfill their patriotic duties, leaders in Berks worked tirelessly to keep the spirit of patriotism alive in Berks County. And thus, the Liberty Chorus was born.

On July 17, 1918 a meeting was held in the Chamber of Commerce to organize committees and appoint lieutenants to arrange community sings throughout the summer. The meeting consisted of leading musical representatives from the Reading Rotary, the Penn Wheelmen, the Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and other musical organizations.  The lieutenant’s role was to recruit choir singers and musicians to create a community singing chorus to lead the community in popular war songs. They believed a singing community would never know the burdens of war.

Reading had a reputation for its excellent singers and strong church choirs. Reading also had a prize-winning choral society under the direction of Edward Berg. With this rich history in organized singing, the Liberty Chorus was formed on July 18, 1918 with a membership of 350 men who were ready to keep the fires of patriotism burning in Berks County. The men present at the meeting that night could not have envisioned just how popular the Liberty Chorus would become.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 18 Jul 1918, Thu

The Liberty Chorus was headed by “sing leader” George F Eisenbrown. Before the American entry in the Great War, Eisenbrown was busy developing Muhlenberg Park, Illustrious Potentate of the Rajah Temple, and was partnered with his brother Charles in the family business, Eisenbrown Granite Works (P.F. Eisenbrown & Sons).

What began as a summertime experiment became a local phenomenon. Within a few weeks of their first sing at the 7th and Laurel playground on July 23, 1918, the Liberty Chorus had stoked the fires of the Reading’s patriotic spirit, making them a popular attraction in the community. They performed before crowds of 15,000 on Sundays in City Park. This was significant at a time when 19 men could be arrested for violating the Blue Laws for playing baseball.

Whether it was a pre-planned community sing or an impromptu appearance to celebrate good news from the Western Front, the Liberty Chorus made themselves available whenever the need to promote patriotism arose.  One such instance was a Sunday night/Monday morning gathering in front of the Berkshire Hotel. Despite unfortunate timing and weather, the Liberty Chorus sang their hearts out and led a parade of 5,000 citizens in joyous celebration through the rain-soaked streets of Reading (more on this topic in a future article).

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After the war, their popularity didn’t diminish, but their role in the promotion of patriotism drew to a close. Their performances were less frequent but still popular among the community. The Liberty Chorus was scheduled to lead a Christmas Carol sing-a-long on Christmas Eve in Penn Square, only to have it cancelled due to rain. Later they performed to honor the late, former President, Theodore Roosevelt at the Rajah Temple and they set an attendance record at the Colonial Theatre. Their last performance was on June 3, 1919 at the Auditorium on South 5th St to welcome home Company A, a fitting farewell to Reading’s Patriotic Singers.

On November 10, 2018, the Reading Choral Society will be bringing the sound of the Liberty Chorus back to life when our 1918 time capsule will be opened at the Berks History Center. The Reading Choral Society will be performing popular songs sung by the Liberty Chorus during the Great War. Click here for more information on this historic event. (for more on the Liberty Chorus, see the Historical Review of Berks County, Winter 2017-2018).

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. 

Through a Soldier’s Eyes: The Realities of the Great War

IMG-3475The swell of patriotism in Reading and Berks County in 1917 made the war theatre attractive to many young, impressionable men, who were called by their country to fight for freedom. At the time, activities on the home front were entirely focused on bringing a swift and decisive victory in France for our soldiers in the trenches. Countless loan drives helped to pay for the war and the citizens of Reading and Berks County pitched in to support our troops overseas. Meanwhile, new recruits departed as heros from the Outer Station with community celebrations, parades and music.

Surrounded by a community spirit of patriotic duty, young men from Reading and Berks entered the army by volunteering or draft, eager to be a part of the action. The young men who became the American Expeditionary Forces couldn’t wait to make folks at home proud. Unfortunately, what they discovered in Europe were conditions that were unimaginable. They quickly exchanged the romanticism and excitement of the war for a life wrought with hunger, fear and uncertainty.

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The soldiers who left Reading on August 25, 1917 became a machine gun company for the First composite National Guard attached to Company I. The company, which was comprised of soldiers from 26 states, departed from Mineola, NY and eventually saw action in France. The following excerpt is from the diary of Samuel Cole of the 125 Infantry, written on the Champagne Front. Cole was a Michigan native, but his account of what life was like during battle is powerful and moving. Many of Cole’s diary entries were matter of fact, detailing when he wrote letters, played a ballgame (Company I vs headquarters), and bunk fatigue. Other entries were duty-driven, describing his service: “hiked to reserve positions – weather hot, worked on barbed wire, saw aero plane battle, piece of shrapnel comes close. Rifle range – Faber, Cavanaugh, Willis, McCarney and I have beer party under tree.”  Yet other entries spoke of hunger and survival, boiling potatoes the size of marbles with small red beets and scavenging for food for days.

When action occurred, such as the conflict at Ferme de Ferret, Cole’s diary entries were lengthy and detailed. Cole vividly recounted days of fighting and the horrors of his experience. He even pasted additional space in the diary to include all the details of the day. The following is a portion of the entry by Cole on the activities he experienced on July 29, 1918:

We go over the top at 2:30 pm, see men get up from hillside ahead and go uphill. We cheer them on. Machine gunners tell us they are Germans, and we are front line. We crossed wheat field from St. Martins Road under heavy barrage, jump across the Oureq River and are ordered up Hill 212. The boys complained about the heavy packs and we were all carrying them. Told them to take them off. We started up the hill in the open. Found Van Wert and some others wounded. Corp. Wojciechowski called to me “lets give them hell Cole”. I shouted back “I’m with you we will show them”. The next time I looked, when he threw up his hands and whirled around shot through the forehead. He was a good friend of mine and a fine chap. It made me so mad I could have taken on the whole German Army. It was a sight I have dreamed about many times since. By the time we reached the top, there was only Smally, Dombrowski and myself out of the eight that started. Dombrowski got a bullet through the groin and crawled back down. Smily had a 20 shot Schechout French automatic Rifle, no extra clips. He went back down to find a rifle, never saw him again. The tallest cover I could find were weeds 3” high, kept down flat. Corp. Bancroft, company runner, crawled up, inquired of Captain Crabb. Reversed my position, laid on my back. Told him on the left somewhere, while we were talking, a shell exploded up front and my left foot went numb. Told Bancroft I was hit, probably by dead shrapnel. He left to look for Crabb. I waited a while, and I decided as I was alone on the extreme right of our unit, I better go back and come up farther on the left where our boys were. Started back bullets flying overhead, got partway down hill and shell exploded to right. Another and another, each one coming closer, the last one dropped 100’ to my right.  Shells started falling to my left coming closer each time. The last one dropped about 50’ away. I could see the jagged fragments of the shell as it exploded, the butt end sailing over my head. Was I ever scared. Up to now I was mad, now I was mad and scared. I went on down the hill, always stopped, took off my shoe and poured the blood out.

The machine gun division mentioned in Cole’s diary entry most likely included the soldiers from Reading. From J. Bennett Nolan’s “The Reading Militia in the Great War” A Divisional Citation of Major-General Charles T. Menoher states:

“Fresh from the battlefront before Chalons, you were thrown against the picked troops of Germany. For eight consecutive days you attacked skillfully prepared positions. You captured great stores of arms and ammunitions. You forced the crossing of the Oureq. You took Hill 212, Sergy, Meurcy, Ferme and Serenges by assault. You drove the enemy, including an Imperial Guard Division, before you for a depth of fifteen kilometers. When your infantry was relieved it was in full pursuit of the retreating Germans and your artillery continued to progress and support another American division in the advance of the Vesle.”

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The price of victory was steep for the young men who served in the American Expeditionary Forces. The combination of shell explosions, gas and gun fire made the wide-eyed soldiers hardened by death of friends, wounds suffered in battle, hunger, and the basic will to survive.

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. 

 

 

Pitching In & Going Without: Patriotism in Berks County during the Great War

By May of 1918, the citizens of Reading and Berks County were confronted with the realities of war on a daily basis. The war itself may have been fought on foreign soil, but its presence was felt intimately at home. Whether in the form of food rationing, loan drives, or new recruits leaving for camp in preparation for the battlefields of France, the never-ending sacrifices of war had a huge impact on the citizens of Berks County.

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Reading Times  May 1, 1918, Cole Watson

The Third Liberty Loan Drive was nearing its completion when the last fight card of the season was scheduled by Cole Watson’s Athletic Club at The Auditorium on April 30th.  At the event, patrons were greeted by Sergeant Manning Grimes of Providence R.I., a wounded soldier who returned from France and made his pledge to the patrons that buying Liberty Bonds will help our boys beat the Kaiser. This was the first time boxing patrons were solicited to purchase Liberty Bonds, and the 1,000 patrons responded with bond purchases in the amount of $9,000.

In addition to raising funds, the people of Berks County were accustomed to going without in a time of war. Citizens were already rationing food on pork, meat and wheat-less days, and by the end of April 1918, the Food Administration introduced a 90-day pastry abstinence, which went into effect on May 1, 1918. The pastry abstinence was enacted to conserve flour shortly after Food Administrator Davies battled with Reading bakeries over the price of bread.  The city of Reading offered residents several areas around town to start war gardens, encouraging citizens to raise their own vegetables for consumption and conserve farm produce for the war effort. Gardens sprung up all over Reading, from the Hampden and Buttonwood reservoir plots, to the grounds near Sternbergh’s Sterling and Spring and Weiser Streets. Open city blocks, city parks with reservoirs or open land on private property were all made available to Reading residents for rent or free of charge.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 24 Apr 1918, Wed
Reading Times  · April 24, 1918

Local media encouraged citizens to do their part and get on board with the war effort. A story appeared in the Reading Times about a much-married slacker who was arrested in Reading and returned to York. Paul Sweitzer, alias George Krause, was arrested for failing to register with his draft board in York. City detectives ran down a series of clues on Sweitzer, who married 16-year-old Augusta Hunf of Reading four years prior. The two lived with Hunf’s parents until they ran away, dressing his bride as a man as they hopped freight trains toward Pittsburgh. They were attacked by tramps out west, where Sweitzer shot one of the tramps. Sweitzer spent 6 months in jail for the shooting, and police sent his wife back home. When Sweitzer returned, he took out an $1,000 insurance policy out on his wife. He then made a concoction for his wife, which made her deathly ill. Sweitzer then disappeared, as his wife was saved by means of a stomach pump from his deadly act. Two years later he published accounts of his fake death. Believing Sweitzer was dead, Hunf later married another man. Sweitzer then married again under the name of Krause. Reading police learned of Krause from his second wife, Mary Phillips. The two had lived in York and then Reading when police were on the lookout for a slacker named Sweitzer. Phillips became suspicious and reported her husband to the police, when they discovered his hidden identity.

On May 18, 1918, 2,000 women marched in the Red Cross March of Mercy, which kicked off the nation’s hundred million drive for the Red Cross, with Berks County’s quota at $150,000. Over 6,000 people marched in the parade, with Ernest J. Poole as chief marshal of the parade. The parade consisted of 5 divisions that formed in City Park and included Red Cross workers, students from the girl’s high school, fraternal organizations, loan workers, civic organizations and students from the boy’s high school. The parade began at the head of Penn Street, marched down to 4th Street and counter-marched to 10th Street before dispersing at Franklin Street. Miss Catherine Gilbert, who dressed as Miss Liberty for the Boy Scouts Liberty Loan parade in April, exchanged her Liberty costume for a Red Cross outfit for this parade.

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Red Cross March of Mercy Parade Reading, PA from the Collection of Berks History Center

Gilbert had just finished up touring the county as Miss Liberty for the War Savings Stamps drive. She then began a week long 90-mile tour of Berks County for a series of open air meetings dressed as a Red Cross Nurse. The tour would leave Reading each evening at 5:30PM, making multiple stops along each route.  The drive had the presence of a British and French soldier, who had seen much service in Europe.  The soldiers attended meetings during the day in Reading and accompanied Miss Gilbert on the evening tours in the county. The evening tours ended with destinations in Boyertown, Hamburg, Birdsboro, Kutztown and Womelsdorf. In each instance, the tour was met with large gatherings, including parades through Hamburg and Boyertown, which were led by the local Boy Scout troops. The drive started on May 20, 1918. Typical of Berks County’s patriotic response for a drive of any type, the county doubled its quota, raising $300,000 for the Red Cross drive. The Wolfinger Knitting Mill went over the top by contributing 100 percent by May 18th, doubling their quota of $195 and thus receiving a 100 percent flag with a gold star.

Jere Edwards had just completed his Sunday lectures at the Y.M.C.A. auditorium on the war and the conditions our soldiers experienced at the front. The lectures were well attended. Edwards, the General Secretary of the Reading Y.M.C.A., left late in 1916 to work with the International YMCA in Cairo, Egypt and operate a service hut in France. He returned from Europe in November 1917.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 01 May 1918, Wed
Reading Times · May 01 ,1918

With all the happenings around Reading and Berks at this time, from food rationing and war gardens, loan drives, Red Cross parades and tours, war lectures at the Y.M.C.A., or slackers being picked up for failure to register to their draft boards, the citizens of Reading and Berks County never wavered in their commitment to their patriotic duty. At the time, reports were coming back of casualties to U.S. soldiers, who were fighting at the frontlines. Letters would appear in the Reading Times from a soldier “somewhere in France” telling of life in the trenches. The reality of the Great War left six Berks County soldiers in graves in France and one at the bottom of the Atlantic, all at the hands of the enemy. Others had died from disease. Memorial Day in 1918 had a very solemn meaning for the citizens of Berks.

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. 

All In: Life in a Time of War

img-2877.jpgDuring his popular Sunday lectures on the war conditions in France, Jere Edwards, General Secretary of the Y.M.C.A. of Reading, gave a presentation on “Womanhood and the War – Her Bravery and Sacrifice” which presented women capable of more than just the delicate things in life, but qualified to take her place in any department of activity, even to the extent of engaging in a world war. This report in the Reading Times gave a vivid description of the role women played in Europe and how their involvement was both encouraged and required in the allied efforts abroad.

The nurses of the Red Cross were the first to answer the call, participating long before the United States became involved in the conflict. Initially, they contributed as part of a humanitarian effort, which placed their services wherever they were needed. Once the United States entered the war, the Red Cross immediately served the United States. Those who served in Europe experienced the dangers of the war and risked their lives providing medical care on the front lines. At home, a service flag was unfurled at the Reading Hospital Alumni Association for the women who were doing their part for the war effort overseas.

womenwanted Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 11 Dec 1917,

As young men answered the call to defend their country, women stepped in to fill a much-needed void of male laborers in the workplace. It was not uncommon during WWI to see women employed in the mill at Carpenter Steel, a plant that was vital to war production. The women of Berks also took classes for mechanical drawing at the Boys High School and filled positions that they would not usually be offered, such as clerical, sales and railroad work. The Pennsylvania Railroad published women-only advertisements to hire women for work around the stations and tracks.

As the war continued in Europe, the traditional roles played by the citizens of Reading and Berks County were challenged. While many women volunteered for the Red Cross or the Y.W.C.A., others stepped in and fill the void in the workplace. Money needed to be raised for the war effort as well, and an enthusiastic group led an aggressive campaign to raise funds. By March 1918, everybody had a hand in helping the United States beat the Kaiser: soldiers fought overseas while citizens supported them at home.

call to service Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 28 Mar 1918,

The local stories from Reading and Berks County are a never-ending parade of patriotism in the form of a willingness to serve, an abundance of unwavering patriotism and an endless stream of donations in the form of Liberty Loans, War Saving Stamps, and Red Cross Drives. Each one of these drives were carefully planned and executed with precision. The Third Liberty Loan Drive kicked off in March 1918 with the goal of earning $1,000,000 in local subscriptions. The drive began by training 35 Boy Scouts from the Y.M.C.A. in military drills. Robert L. Leslie of the League Island Navy Yard led the instruction every Thursday night in the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium. The drills served as motivation for the boys, who were responsible for carrying out The Liberty Loan Drive. The Scouts went door-to-door, soliciting funds for the loan drive. Locally, the Boy Scouts had a force of 1,200 scouts ready to take to the streets in the name of liberty.

The drive began on April 6, 1918 and was kicked off with a rally at the Rajah Theatre on March 28th. The theatre was packed to capacity with a lively crowd, eager to hear the speeches promoting the Liberty Loan Drive. Sergeant Lawton Dixon, a Canadian, told gripping stories about the battles of France, such as how he lost his leg and his brother while fighting on the battlefield. This wasn’t the only loan promotion going on that day in Reading. A group of women gathered at the Weiser and Douglass school building to listen to Food Administrator Davies talk about Thrift Stamps. The meeting highlighted the fact that liberty came at a price and everyone had to do her part to ensure that liberty was secure.

Ludwig Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 15 Mar 1918,

Just as the Liberty Loan Drive was gaining steam, Reading received devastating news about one of its soldiers. On March 14, 1918, the newspapers reported that Paul Ludwig from Company I, Rainbow Division had been killed in battle overseas. At the time, details about the locations of particular regiments were never revealed in the paper – until news reached home of a soldier’s death. Once the news about Ludwig had been published, every family who had a son in the Rainbow Division knew where their child was overseas. The following day, the news reported another loss: William F. Gehring of Company I, Rainbow Division. Ludwig died while fighting on the front lines. His death meant that every young man in who served with Ludwig faced the same dangers. For his sacrifice, Paul Ludwig was awarded the Croix de Guerre from France for his heroism in battle.

As the residents of Reading and Berks grappled with the loss of their own, they also prepared for something that they had never experienced. In an effort to conserve fuel that produced electric power, the United States followed in the footsteps of other countries by enacting Daylight Savings Time on March 19, 1918. The clocks were scheduled to move forward on March 31, 1918, just in time for Easter. The law proved to be so unpopular it was repealed in 1919. The second introduction of Daylight Savings Time, or War Time, was introduced by Franklin Roosevelt in 1942.

daylight savings Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 22 Mar 1918,

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. 

The Mother of Psychiatric Nursing: Hildegard E. Peplau

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I have to admit, I never heard of Hilde Peplau until about ten years ago when I read about her in Irene Reed’s book, Berks County Women in History, Volume 2. Hildegard was one of the world’s leading nurses! Nursing is a profession I admire greatly because I know I could never do that job! I didn’t get squeamish when my kids got sick or needed stitches, but I just know I couldn’t do that job day after day! I guess that’s why they say, “Different strokes, for different folks!”

Hilde was born in Reading in 1909, the second daughter of Gustav and Ottylie Peplau. She had two sisters and three brothers. She was nine years old when she witnessed the flu pandemic of 1918.  When she observed how this event impacted families, she decided to become a nurse.

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In 1931 she graduated from Pottstown’s School of Nursing. She worked as a staff nurse in Pennsylvania and New York City and then became the school nurse at Bennington College in Vermont. While there, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in interpersonal psychology in 1943. Her lifelong work was focused on interpersonal theory for use in the nursing practice. During WWII she served in the Army nurse corps at the 312th Field Station Hospital in England. She worked side by side with many of the leaders in American and British psychiatry. After the war these leaders, mostly men, and Hilde, worked to restructure the mental health system in the US. After earning her Master’s Degree and Ph.D, she developed and taught the first classes for graduate psychiatric nursing students. She was a prolific writer and was well known for her programs, speeches and clinical training workshops.

Hilde advocated for nurses to treat psychiatric patients with therapeutic methods, not just custodial care which was how patients in mental hospitals were treated in that era. She conducted summer workshops during the 50s and 60s for nurses throughout the US. At these workshops, she taught interpersonal concepts as well as individual, family and group therapy. Her textbook from 1952 has been translated into nine languages. She tried to publish it in 1948, when it was finished, but publication was delayed four years, because it was thought to be too revolutionary for a nurse to publish a book without a doctor as co-author! When she passed away in 1999, she was known to many people as “The Nurse of the Century”. In 1997 she received the world of nursing’s most prestigious award, the Christiane Reimann Prize. This honor is only given once every four years for outstanding national and international contributions to nursing and health care. The American Academy of Nursing honored Hilde as a “Living Legend” in 1996 and in 1998 the American Nurses Association inducted her into the ANA Hall of Fame. Our Hildegard Peplau, from Reading, PA, is regarded as “the mother of psychiatric nursing”!

Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 

#WomensHistoryMystery

Mystery Woman of the Week #4

I wrote the poem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which was later set to music, during the Civil War. President Lincoln is said to have wept upon hearing it sung. Who am I?

Mystery Woman Answer #3

Answer: Sandra Day O’connor

Fighting for Democracy at Home and Abroad

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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.

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 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. 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.”

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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. 

 

Resources:

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.

http://www.blackpast.org/

Harlem Hellfighters: Black Soldiers in World War I