Memorial Day is about remembering. Initially called Decoration Day, the holiday started as a day dedicated to remembering the soldiers who died during the Civil War. Gradually the scope of the day expanded to include the commemoration of all Americans who died while serving in the military as well as to honor those who risked their lives in service to our country.
With Memorial Day upon us, now is a fitting time to remember one of the most significant chapters in the story of Charlotte’s associations with the military—the founding and operation of Camp Greene. Opened in July 1917, Camp Greene was a military training facility located in west Charlotte where tens of thousands of recruits were trained before being deployed to Europe to fight and, in many cases, die in World War I. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, Camp Greene was no longer needed, and the facility was soon dismantled. Over the years, the story of Camp Greene was nearly forgotten, but two Charlotte historians—Miriam Grace Mitchell and Edward Spaulding Perzel—set out to keep the memory of Camp Greene alive. In 1979, they published a book titled The Echo of the Bugle Call, Charlotte’s Role in World War I in which they covered the history of Camp Greene. Their book has now been digitized and is available by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library: https://www.cmstory.org/book/echo-bugle-call-charlottes-role-world-war-i
In preparation for writing this blog post, I contacted community historian Tom Hanchett and asked him if he was familiar with The Echo of the Bugle Call, and if so, would he be willing to write something about the book and the significance of Camp Greene for my blog. Tom responded by suggesting that I contact J. Michael Moore, a community historian who has been working with folks in the Camp Greene neighborhood who are interested in their history. I then contacted Michael and learned that he is a professionally trained public historian who worked as a staff historian at the Worcester Historical Museum in Massachusetts for many years before moving to Charlotte. In recent years, he has served as a consultant to the Levine Museum of the New South in the creation of exhibitions about Camp Greene. Michael readily agreed to my request for more information about The Echo of the Bugle Call and the historical importance of Camp Greene. Here is what he sent to me:
Before I moved to Charlotte, I did history work in California and New England. This is the first place I have lived with a large African American population, and my first time living in the South. Studying history here forced me to understand more deeply the importance of race in every American story. Also, I have been jarred to see symbols of the nation and symbols of the Confederacy in close proximity, as is common here. Of course, these tendencies are deeply imbedded in our national culture and society today. Understanding the South is one path to knowing America.
I started exploring the story of Camp Greene at the invitation of the neighborhood association ahead of their events to mark its 100th anniversary. The Echo of the Bugle Call, published in 1979, was one of the first works I consulted. It was the first serious look at the story of Camp Greene, created as part of an effort to revive the memory of the camp and of the World War in Charlotte, and prompted by the successful grassroots organizing of teenager David Ritch to save the Dowd House, the only remaining building from Camp Greene.
The Echo conveys the vast scale of the undertaking and the doggedness of the city’s boosters to win the contract for the camp. It is full of details about the experience of soldiers and camp/city relations. But it has a blind spot when it comes to race. Paying attention to the experience of African American soldiers and the community displaced by the camp broadens and deepens our understanding of the history. It also offers a key to unlock the mystery of why Camp Greene was “forgotten” and in need of rediscovery when The Echo was written.
The main camp covered an area the size of Uptown, Dilworth, and the South End combined. The trick was to assemble that much land close to the city and make it available at no cost to the US Army! The newly organized Chamber of Commerce did it by leasing the land from 33 different property owners, paying rent and compensation for the crops in the fields. It raised the money through donations from businesses, especially those related to land development and the hospitality industry. The Chamber then leased more than 2,000 contiguous acres to the Army for $1. It was the first large Chamber-led growth project.
Nearly none of the owners lived on the land. The people who lived there were renters, mostly working as farm laborers or as farm tenants. A majority were African American. All were rushed off the land as soon as the contract was inked with the Army. All of the homes were torn down and most were burned in the mad dash to erect the camp. Only the Dowd House and Syd Alexander’s “Enderly” were spared, and they served as the construction headquarters and camp headquarters, respectively. The Black tenants who were run off in July, 1917, would be the last African Americans to dwell on this land until the 1970s. When homes were built starting in the 1920s, blacks were excluded from buying or living in them. It was only in the 1970s, as legal impediments crumbled and white folks fled, that black residents found homes here.
When the camp was built, the Army policy was to train African American troops outside the South. It was on that basis that the city fought so hard for the camp. But in mid-1918, the Army reversed its policy and began to assign soldiers to camps near where they were drafted. That meant that many Black soldiers were trained at Camp Greene. Indeed, from the late summer of 1918, a majority of the troops were African American. The average number of Black troops in October, 1918, was 14,336!
Looking at the experience of the Black troops complicates the story of Camp Greene and puts in question many of the themes advanced about it. The encounter between the “non-Southern” newcomer and the “New South” city is only one aspect of the story. The hospitality of the locals was not extended in the same way to Black troops. The YMCA building at the camp had a sign at the front door stating, “No Negro Soldiers Allowed by Orders of the Military Authorities.” Most African American troops were assigned to labor battalions and received almost no military training. They were treated roughly by the military police, and more often confined to the base. When the war ended the camp was closed, and there was no groundswell of support for maintaining an Army camp in Charlotte. It is likely that the presence of so many African American troops contributed to that sentiment.
Years ago, I co-authored a case study of World War I remembrance in a small Massachusetts town that created a remarkable “peace memorial” to its soldiers. I have only begun to explore the way the World War has been remembered in Charlotte, but my initial investigations suggest some important insights. WWI has long been the nation’s “forgotten” major war. It was the last to get a national museum and memorial, and the public knows little about it. Several reasons are posited for this situation, a major one being the way it was eclipsed by World War II. World War II is more recent, had a larger impact on more people, and was the “good war” to fight fascism. In Charlotte, however, WWI was not eclipsed by WWII. It was eclipsed by the Civil War.
There were many commemorative events here in the first decade after the WWI. The white and black veterans each formed American Legion posts. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected an obelisk at the camp honoring the units that trained there. Several white soldiers, who died at the camp and whose bodies were not claimed, were buried at Elmwood Cemetery, and a marker erected. Armistice observances became increasingly organized.
In 1922, Clarence “Booster” Kuester, the leader of the Chamber of Commerce, personally paid $3,000 to buy a statue of a “doughboy” for the city. It was installed in front of the county courthouse on South Tryon Street near the 1898 obelisk memorial to signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. The statue was moved when a new courthouse was built in 1928. But rather than being moved to the new courthouse, like the Meck Deck memorial, it was moved to the site of the new armory/auditorium planned for Independence Park. (This building today is known as the Grady Cole Center.) There was an urgency to getting the new armory built because it was to serve as the main venue for the reunion of the national organization of the United Confederate Veterans the following summer.
Armistice Day, 1928, marked the tenth anniversary of the war’s end, and the city organized a parade from city hall to rededicate the doughboy statue at its new location, where speeches and songs and prayers were offered at 4:00PM. At the exact same hour, the Black American Legion Post was holding a ceremony at the city’s segregated Pinewood Cemetery and marking the graves of 50 soldiers who died in the war.
“CITY SURRENDERS TO CONFEDERATE ARMY” proclaimed the banner headline in the Charlotte Observer on June 4th, 1929. 150,000 people watched as 10,000 marched at the annual reunion of the Confederate War Veterans. A reporter wrote that the aging vets “had become in the instant those same dashing, gallant boys . . . of the proudest race that America has produced, the antebellum Anglo-Saxons of the southland.” A new monument was dedicated next to the doughboy statue at the armory, “erected by the citizens” of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County to the Confederate veterans who “preserved the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South and became master builders in a reunited country.” Enormous energy was being poured into the vessel of the “Lost Cause” by the white community. It united them in a way that World War I could never hope to do. Despite the new monument’s claim to “reuniting the nation,” the hearts and hopes of these people were united in memory of an imagined Southern past, not an imagined national community.
That monument stood where it was erected until last summer, when it was quietly spirited away by the county during COVID lockdown. Six years earlier it had been twice defaced by BLM protestors. In August, 2014, in the wake of the shootings in the Charleston church, the names of the victims were painted across one face of the monument. On the other side was written, “The cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery – WAS WRONG.”
The Dowd House, long effectively closed as a museum, has been sold by the county to a private real estate development firm, to be used as its office. For a long time, the county was unwilling to spend the money to staff or program the Dowd House. Some of its historical exhibits have been transferred to the public library. The African Americans who found homes in Camp Greene after 1970 are being displaced in large numbers again, forced by high rents and new gentrifiers to find shelter elsewhere, often outside of Charlotte. We wait and wonder where and how to find common ground for all of us as Americans.
Michael’s response to my invitation to contribute to this week’s blog post underscores for me the evolving nature of historical research and writing. As a public historian, Michael appreciates the importance of The Echo of the Bugle Call, Charlotte’s Role in World War I in terms of preserving the history of Camp Greene. However, he also knows that history is not static and that new research and changing perspectives influence our understanding of historical events. As Michael shows, the story of Camp Greene relates to many other stories, all of which contribute to the dynamic and complex narrative that is Storied Charlotte.