WWI symposium held at Backdoor Playhouse

A placard of photos and documents from the WWI symposium.  Photo by Shea James

According to the Tennessee Virtual Archive over 3,800 Tennesseans died during World War I, and on Nov. 3 The Tennessee Great War Commission held a symposium at Tech’s Backdoor Playhouse in Jere Whitson building to talk about the war, the contributions of Tennesseans and discoveries made about the war since its end.

Dr. Troy Smith, history professor at Tech, spoke of the struggles suffered by African American soldiers during the war, and the fates that many of them faced upon their return home. 

“Well the War Department decided that conscription of African Americans was absolutely necessary. And in fact was at a quota.” Smith said. “If your state didn’t draft enough black people, they would make up the difference by drafting more white people… It gave one more excuse for people who wanted to feel bitter toward their African American neighbors.”

He talked about Buffalo Soldiers being deployed along the border to prevent German allies from entering the country from Mexico. With the Buffalo Soldiers being African American, it would be nearly impossible for a German soldier to infiltrate their ranks. 

“I thought it was very informative,” Kristie Trapp, an attendee said. “You know it was there. It concreted it, I guess.”

Dr. Carole Bucy, history professor at Volunteer State Community College, spoke about the protests and struggles for women’s voice in the church and the fight for suffrage in Tennessee. 

Bucy talked about the written rivalry between David Lipscomb, the minister who founded the Nashville Bible School which later became Lipscomb University, who was also outspoken about his views on women’s silent roles in the church and at home, and Silena Holman, a woman who believed that women should be able to teach biblical topics to whomever needs guidance. The two had a rivalry via letters for many years, with neither backing down.

At nearly the same time a document that would one day become the 19thAmendment was being passed from state to state to be ratified, having been ratified in 35 states, and needing one more when it came to Tennessee. 

Bucy said the vote for women’s suffrage was won by a single vote, when Harry T. Burn changed his mind to vote in favor of women’s suffrage. A decision he reached when his mother wrote him a letter to vote in favor of the ratification of the 19thamendment. The decision caused uproar within the Senate, and according to rumor, Burn even jumped out of a window to get away from the anti-suffrage protestors.

“One hundred years, 98 right now. I’m determined to make it two more years to the 100thyear of this anniversary,” Bucy said. “In 1920 … My grandmother took her 4-year-old daughter, her only child. They went to the Methodist church in Pitton, Texas to vote. My mother … watched it happen. And let me tell ya, these two women never missed an election.”

Dr. Mark Chee, assistant professor of biology at Martin Methodist College, spoke about the poor sanitation conditions, cramped spaces like ports and staging areas and constant contact with different immunity systems that allowed Spanish Flu to devastate as many people as it did. 

“We were just beginning to do away with the idea that it’s ‘bad air’ or noxious gases that caused infectious diseases,” Chee said. “The only infectious microorganisms we knew about in that day and age was bacteria.”

Chee said the Spanish Flu actually started in Kansas, and it wasn’t until the Spanish press started talking about safety measures that it received that name. 

Pat Gang, a military history student with a bachelor’s in history, spoke with a focus on communication methods employed throughout the war. 

“They were issued field telephones. The field telephones operated off of AC current, so they had to be grounded. The ground wire carried the voice signal. The Germans found out that they could sink a probe into the ground and pick up that voice signal.” Gang said. “This German Divisional commander said that his signal’s intelligence was so good that he knew the name of every single company commander in the division offices. That is a huge problem.”

Gang later spoke about the importance and role of code talkers, Native American soldiers who communicated in Cherokee to keep enemy forces that had picked up their transmissions from knowing what was being said. Cherokee being a language exclusive to the United States, Germans would have no understanding of. 

“Well everybody’s heard of the code talkers, the wind talkers of World War 2, the Navajo arranged in the Pacific,” symposium attendee Chuck Womack said. “This is quite interesting that this was just a month before armistice. This is fascinating.”

 “Airplanes and aviators made quite the impression everywhere they appeared,” Dr. Peter Cash, history professor at University of Memphis, said during a lecture on Tennesseans who flew during the war, as well as the conditions of the planes they flew and bases they were on. 

“Thousands of young Americans dreamed of taking to the sky, but very few could actually afford to do so. Well, in late 1916, that’s all going to change. Because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the United States is going to get involved in World War, whether they want to or not.”

He said airplanes were disassembled, transported via train, and then reassembled later on base. Often pilots tested these planes, which were often made of thin and shoddy materials, this being nearly the earliest years of aviation. Testing these planes killed more people than what were actually shot down Cash said.

Dr. Michael Birdwell, filling in for Dr. Emmett Essin, spoke about the importance of American mules during the war and how many were killed due to their necessity to both the enemy and the US.

“There were three states that were known internationally for the quality of their mules,” Birdwell said, referring to Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri. “These three states produced the best mules in the world, as far as people were concerned.”

“I didn’t realize how important they [mules] were during the war, either,” lecture attendee Doris Yokley said.

Other attractions at the symposium included several period accurate military uniforms, books full of postage and patches from the era, another book on field artillery history also from the 1910s, photos of soldiers and generals from the war, and several stands with information on placards.

Information on the placards included the contributions from the boy scouts and American children, efforts of Tennessean soldiers like Luke Lea and Gordon Browning, efforts by the Red Cross, and the formation of the NAACP.