NINETY-TWO YEARS AGO, a soldier from Manchester died from injuries suffered years earlier in the trenches of World War I. That’s not unusual. But what is? He was black and laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
Now, servicemen and women of the venerable American Legion Sweeney Post are hoping to give Arthur Whitaker the honors he deserves.
Based on an obituary in the Manchester Leader newspaper, Whitaker appears to be a former member of Sweeney Post. If everything works out, the Legion will set things right for a fellow soldier, who — despite his well-known status in Manchester, despite his combat service — rests in an unmarked grave at Pine Grove Cemetery.
“I feel bad for any veteran who’s unrecognized. They’re not forgotten, but they’re not remembered,” said Al Heidenreich, a past Sweeney Post commander who is taking on research about the man.
He envisions a marker, which the Department of Veterans Affairs supplies for any veteran, being placed on Whitaker’s grave. And in American Legion fashion, Heidenreich wants it done with flags, taps, military representatives, Legion members and representatives of the city’s growing black community.
But first, he has to find out more about Whitaker.
Here is what we know for sure:
• Whitaker lies in the first grave dug out of the second of three veteran cemetery lots in Pine Grove. That was confirmed when Ken Morse, the retired head of city cemeteries, examined records.
• He was born Dec. 2, 1890, in Rocky Mount, N.C., according to his June 1917 draft card, which the New Hampshire Division of Vital Records Administration made available after I called.
• When drafted, Whitaker was single. His race was listed as African, and he worked as a bootblack on Amherst Street.
• A 1920 naturalization card lists him as a soldier and, in parentheses, “Negro.”
Less certain is the Oct. 24, 1925, newspaper article (it contains at least two typographical errors, and Whitaker’s name is mispelled), which says:
• For years, he was a well-known bootblack who worked on Hanover Street.
• He was gassed in “one of the major engagements of the war,” bravely fought off death but suffered poor health because of the gassing.
• He had no immediate relatives.
• “His name will go down in the history of the Henry J. Sweeney post,” the article reads.
As for that last item, Heidenreich said Sweeney Post records are spotty from back then, and he and other former leaders are trying to locate and examine them.
“Nobody knew we had an African American member that far back,” Heidenreich said.
Despite segregation of military forces, African Americans volunteered for World War I in great numbers before the draft, said Anthony Gero, a retired high school teacher in Auburn, N.Y., and author of “Black Soldiers of New York State, a Proud Legacy.”
“They viewed it as an attempt to prove they were full citizens and should not be looked down upon,” Gero said. But they faced racial tensions from the start, historians said.
They proved their valor. The 93rd Division, which comprised segregated National Guard units, fought alongside the depleted French forces, who trained and supplied them with little prejudice, according to Army historian Dr. Brian Neumann.
Three units from the 93rd earned the French Croix de Guerre, and the 369th Infantry Regiment from New York City — the famed Harlem Hellcats — lays claim to being the first Army unit to reach the Rhine River, Neumann wrote.
Because the 93rd was mostly Guard units, Whitaker could have more likely ended up in the 92nd Division, which was made up of African-American draftees, Gero said.
Despite racism, the 92nd eventually grew battle-tested, and it experienced heavy fighting, Neumann wrote. Twenty-one members earned the Distinguished Service Cross.
At war’s end, some 404,000 blacks were in uniform, about 11 percent of the Army’s total strength.
Despite their expectations, they returned home and little changed. Racial lynchings increased in the post-war era and some blacks were lynched in uniform, Gero said.
And in New Hampshire, Whitaker became a naturalized citizen, which is a mystery in and of itself. His draft card said he was native born. Another humiliation? A wounded soldier being forced to take a pledge of citizenship to a country he fought for?
“I do not have all the answers about Arthur Whitaker. But the documents may spark additional questions about him,” Nicholl Marshall, a statistician with the state Division of Vital Records Administration, wrote in an email.
Heidenreich realizes he has his work ahead of him. But records are available. Death records and further naturalization records are available at the state level, Marshall said.
And military records about a soldier’s military service are public, according to Maj. Carla Gleason, a spokesman for the Department of Defense.
“It takes a long time, but this (Whitaker’s case) has obviously been a long time,” Gleason said.