13:The Chronicle of Edward Jannifer at MVRHS

By Dr. Elaine Cawley Weintraub

From 1914 until 1918, Europe fought in the mud, tears and blood of trench warfare on the western front in France and Belgium, and in the east the poorly-equipped Russian army struggled to hold back German forces while sharing one gun among three soldiers. For three years, the soldiers lived in subhuman conditions, enduring water-filled trenches, poison gas, sub-zero temperatures and awaiting the order to leave their trenches and run across no-man’s land to reach the enemy trenches, a journey that very few would survive. By 1917, the casualties were enormous and the “war to end all wars” continued its daily monotonous horror without any clear indication of it ever ending.

Into this horror came a new participant. The United States of America declared war on Germany in April 1917, but did not send troops to France until the early fall of that year. The delay was partly due to the fact that there were not enough American men trained to be soldiers. Many African Americans enlisted in the military, 370,000 in all, but three quarters of them were relegated to labor battalions. Those who did fight were segregated into separate units (the 369th and 372nd), and the 100,000 who did fight did so under French officers because they were not allowed to fight with U.S. soldiers who were white. To the war-weary French, the color of the soldiers who fought with them was not an issue. The African Americans were welcomed and honored for their bravery.

At a ceremony held in France to honor the contributions made by the United States soldiers of color, Jean-Luc Mathieu, a Frenchman whose grandfather died fighting alongside the African American soldiers of the 369th New York regiment, observed: “I am grateful to those men for coming to our country to fight. We never think of them as black soldiers, just soldiers who were brave men.”

During the victory parade in New York at the end of World War I, it was observed that the African American regiments who took part in the parade were “marching in the extraordinarily dramatic phalanx formation of the French Army. Shoulder to shoulder from curb to curb, they stretched in great massed squares, 35 feet wide by 35 feet long of men, helmets and bayonets. Through the newly erected Victory Arch at 25th and 5th, they tramped far up the avenue in an endless mass of dark-skinned, grim faced, heavy booted veterans of many a French battlefield.” (Katz, The Negro in American History)

blackamericansoldiers2The bravery of these African American soldiers, who fought with their French companions at many battles, including Chateau Thierry where they were instrumental in holding the Germans at bay, is without question. The French government awarded the Croix de Guerre to these regiments while their own government was sadly silent.

All stories that are played on the world’s great stages have players whose names are rarely known, many of whom come from small communities. It is so with this story. A few weeks ago, an album of sepia photographs that told a family’s story was given to Carrie Tankard, a board member of the African American Heritage Trail. The donor did not know theblackamericansoldiers family’s name, but with magnifying glass in hand we searched those photographs and a story unfolded. Research has shown that the family’s name was Jannifer and they had a home in Oak Bluffs and another in Cambridge. Amid the photographs of an idyllic Vineyard summer, we found the young soldier, whom we now know to be Edward Jannifer, dressed in the uniform of a United States soldier from World War I, proudly serving his country. Photographs show him as a cavalry soldier sitting on his horse with groups of soldiers posing around big guns, but the most interesting photograph shows Edward Jannifer and three other United States soldiers of color posing for a group photograph with a large number of white soldiers wearing different uniforms. This exciting discovery was steamed off the page and revealed the writing France, 1918 on the back. The white soldiers are French, and the Heritage Trail has in its possession another piece of the previously lost, or forgotten, history of African Americans in the United States. The photograph shows the camaraderie that existed between the African American soldiers and the French soldiers who fought alongside them.
Mr. Jannifer, formerly of Oak Bluffs, was a member of the group of African American soldiers who so desired to fight for their country that when that opportunity was not available to them, they joined the army of an ally of the United States, France, to help in the fight to save democracy in Europe.

These African Americans served their country gallantly, earning the gratitude of the French people and proving their own valor in the conditions of horror of World War I. In 1919, they returned to a country where the battle for true equality had still to be won:

We return
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.

“Make way for democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.” (W.E. DuBois, Returning Soldiers, Crisis, May 1919)

Photographs of Edward Jannifer’s family and his war service are on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School at the main entrance. Photographs of the Heritage Trail are also on display at the Dukes County Savings Banks in Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury.

Research for this article was done by Elaine Cawley Weintraub, Carrie Tankard and Dana Mead, a former student at the regional high school.

(c) 2016 Martha's Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail. All Rights Reserved