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Inside the Archives: Exploring Black History Month

Issued a doughboy uniform and sent to France, Rosher Brock served his country without firing a gun or marching to the frontlines.

Born in the 1890s in a LaFayette community known as Appleby’s Line, Rosher (also spelled Roshier) Brock was one of six sons and at least one daughter. His parents, Anderson and Susie, born in the 1870s, were the first generation of African Americans born into freedom. In 1867, another Anderson Brock, possibly Rosher’s grandfather, registered to vote. It marked the first time that African American men were qualified to vote, although barriers restricted full use of that right until the 1960s.

Rosher Brock began working early in life. He recalled that his first job was taking dinners to the white men employed at the LaFayette Cotton Oil Mill when he was around seven or eight years old.

Industrious, Brock worked several odd jobs before the age of fourteen, when he landed steady work at Schuessler and Sons Stores. Eventually he moved to Birmingham in search of better employment.

When the United States stepped into the global conflict in 1917, Brock enlisted in the army. He became one of nearly 400,000 African Americans to join the military during the Great War. Reflecting the cultural ethos of the early twentieth century, African Americans were stationed in segregated camps in the North and restricted from training with and carrying weapons. Only two groups of African American soldiers saw combat, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions whose men earned numerous citations for bravery.

Briefly stationed in New York, Brock embarked on his journey to France from Hoboken, New Jersey on October 18, 1917. During the two week voyage, he saw “nothing but sky and water” before the ship reached the French port.

Brock’s work as an army stevedore would continue for six months after the armistice in November 1918. Like most of the African Americans in military service, his war experience was of heavy lifting, long hours, and back-breaking labor. Prejudice relegated most African Americans to menial yet critical war work. Organized into labor battalions, they laid railroad track, dug ditches, constructed docks at French harbors, and buried soldiers killed in combat.

Stationed at the French loading docks with 301st Stevedore Regiment, Brock and his fellow soldiers unloaded ammunition, clothes, food, and equipment. Although barred from the battlefield, stevedores provided a tremendous service; by acting as the logistical muscle, they ensured the soldiers in the trenches had the items they needed.

Despite their unglamorous toil, Brock’s regiment distinguished itself for its speed and efficiency. For unloading a behemoth ship, appropriately named the Leviathan, in only 56 hours, the 301st Stevedore Regiment earned a citation.

Six months after the war’s end, the stevedores’ work was largely done. Transferred from the Quartermaster Corps to the Transportation Corps, Brock’s regiment left St. Nazaire, France on May 13, 1919.

Arriving in Newport News, Virginia on May 25, Brock’s time in the Army neared its end. He returned to LaFayette, where he worked at C. L. Torbert’s Hardware Store for many years.

In 1983, Mrs. Margaret Freeman, a retired teacher and unofficial county historian, identified Rosher Brock as one of four living African American World War I veterans in Chambers County. The others were Sam Haralson, Will Brock, and McKinley Presley.

Her biographical sketches of both Rosher Brock and Sam Haralson, compiled into a scrapbook at Cobb Memorial Archives, and brief accounts of war related activities published in the LaFayette Sun are the only sources of information about local African American World War I soldiers.

The war activities recorded in the LaFayette Sun speak to a patriotic spirit and willingness to support the nation’s war efforts, to fight for democracy in Europe despite their daily experience of racial inequality in America. On May 3, 1918, the African American citizens of LaFayette established a new chapter of the Red Cross. More than one hundred people joined and contributed to the war relief efforts. Another successful fundraiser occurred on May 26, 1918 when the congregation of St. Luke M. E. Church of Oakbowery raised $275.33 for the Red Cross.

Despite a relatively strong and diverse collection of World War I documents and artifacts at Cobb Memorial Archives, there are no photographs or artifacts relating specifically to local African American soldiers.

Their stories, at risk of being lost forever, deserve to be told, treasured, and preserved. When Rosher Brock passed away in 1991, the county lost its oldest known African American World War I veteran.

Etta Wheeler Wilcox, American author and poet, visited a stevedore camp in France during World War I. After witnessing their hours of strenuous work, she composed a poem that ended with these lines: “Somebody has to do this work; be glad it isn’t you! We are the Army Stevedores; give us our due!”

One hundred years after World War I, Rosher Brock and his fellow soldiers have yet to receive their due.  If you have any information, photographs, or artifacts from an African American World War I veteran please visit Cobb Memorial Archives or contact us by phone at (334) 768-2050 or by email at robinbrown@chamberscountylibrary.org.