Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

African American Doctors of World War I: The Lives of 104 Volunteers
reviewed by Stephen L. Harris


African American Doctors of World War I: 
The Lives of 104 Volunteers
by W. Douglas Fisher and Joann H. Buckley
McFarland, 2015


After listening to a presentation by authors W. Douglas Fisher and Joann H. Buckley, Lieutenant General Earl Brown, a retired black officer with over 100 combat missions as a fighter pilot during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, lamented "This is my history and I knew nothing about it!" Because of the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, Brown had been inspired to join the U.S. Air Force, yet his bittersweet statement was not about black fighter pilots, but black physicians who had served their country during the First World War — African Americans hailing from almost every state whose heroic service has long since been forgotten.

The Doctors Mobilizing  for War

Fisher and Buckley's presentation was the story behind their remarkable book African American Doctors of World War I: The Lives of 104 Volunteers. As the preface points out, wherever they spoke more and more African Americans came up to them and made the same comment that General Brown had made. It was their history and they had not known about it.

Now they do. To me, that's what makes this book remarkable.

And what's equally remarkable is how Fisher and Buckley discovered these doctors and the years it took them to piece together their lives, collect rare photographs, and then write the biographies.

To them it was a quest!


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It began when Fisher was reading the diary, letters and reports written by his grandfather, a captain in the African American 92nd Infantry Division commanding the 317th Motor Supply Train. His grandfather wrote about the physician who took care of 500 soldiers in his Supply Train, Dr. Jonathan N. Rucker.

"What the man was able to accomplish in the Jim Crow South," Fisher stated, "was extraordinary."

Fisher then wondered about other black doctors and what they had accomplished during not only the war, but throughout their lives. He and Buckley teamed up, and one by one they hunted down other doctors. They caught a break while searching through documents at the National Archives. Here they came across an "ancient folder" buried among the U.S. Army Surgeon General records. "It was so old," they wrote, "that its identification tab had disintegrated." Inside the folder were dozens of sheets of fragile paper containing the names of 104 doctors, their backgrounds, hometowns, medical schools, when they graduated and how old they were when they entered military service.

With the names and hometowns and colleges they had attended more than 100 years ago, Fisher and Buckley were off on their years-long odyssey to gather enough material on these long-ago heroes of World War I. For the next five years, the quest took them not just to the National Archives, but to state, city, and small town historical societies around the United States, had them delving into local libraries, poring over old newspapers, and, finally, locating and interviewing family members —children and grandchildren, great nieces and nephews. Quite a journey.

Lt. Jonathan N. Rucker
317th Supply Train, 92nd Division
Reading the biographies, arranged alphabetically, I naturally skipped ahead to start off with Dr. Rucker, the book's catalyst.

Born in 1892, the grandson of a white plantation owner who when he died had left his property to his biracial children, Rucker went on to earn a medical degree as well as a degree in theology. He became not only a doctor of medicine but also a Baptist minister. Thus he actually served a double role for the motor supply train, ministering to the sick and wounded and providing spiritual needs to his fellow troops. After the war, he continued his medical profession in Tennessee and Mississippi, where he was born, served as Baptist minister in several local churches and, amazingly, was a high school principal.

Rucker's story is just one of an amazing collection of black war heroes brought back to life by Fisher and Buckley. Their book is an important piece of black history and well worth owning, not just for African Americans, but for all Americans.

In all fairness, Doug Fisher is a personal friend, but our friendship in no way influenced my review. I found African American Doctors of World War I a book of remarkable people, and the importance of their lives needed to be told.

Stephen L. Harris

Stephen Harris's work on the American Expeditionary Force in the Great War includes, Harlem's Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I, Potomac Books, 2003. His latest book is Rock of the Marne, Berkley Caliber, 2015.

5 comments:

  1. Great review, Stephen, and another book to put on my want list.
    Pete

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  2. Sounds like a great one to add to my pile.

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  3. With all the crap we have seen and read from Spike Lee(and his gang)on the Hollywood Aawards you would think he would make a movie on the black doctors or the black troops who fought with the French.....would sure bring a plus to the race question....
    Joel Norman son of WW-1 Navy Vet(BB North Dakota)

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  4. Looking forward to reading this and hope it gets better known. Thanks for sharing!

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