Uncovering History, Day by Day
1918 Diary Opens Window on Black Soldier's World
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2004; Page B01
The small, black leather-bound book had remained for decades, forgotten, inside a box stuffed with papers in the venerable old brick house on Irving Street NE. But when Gretchen Roberts-Shorter stumbled upon it recently, as she packed up the home for her elderly relatives, she soon realized it was something special.
The book was a diary from World War I, and in spare, unemotional language, it tells what it was like to be a young black soldier serving in the U.S. Army in France in 1918 and 1919. Journals detailing the experience of African Americans in that conflict are so rare that the Smithsonian does not have one in its collections, a curatorial specialist there said.
"From World War I, we have some really fine uniforms and photographs and other materials, but not a diary [from a black soldier], which is a very intimate and important artifact," said Margaret Vining of the Smithsonian, who specializes in the military history of women and blacks and has examined the journal. "That's a very rare diary -- a day-by-day account, a beautifully written account, of his life in the Army."
The diary belonged to Roy Underwood Plummer, who enlisted in 1917 in the District and, because of his writing skills, worked as a clerk in Company C. He graduated from the Howard University School of Medicine in 1927 and lived a productive, cultured life with his wife, Mary, a District educator for whom Plummer Elementary School in Southeast is named. Until his death in 1966, at the age of 69, he practiced medicine in the District.
Roberts-Shorter, a retired D.C. teacher, never met Roy Plummer, a relative by marriage. But as she began to read his daily entries, she felt she got to know "this gentleman" and admired how he approached his wartime adventure and the realities of official segregation. Through his long-ago words, a young man came alive again.
"When I first started reading, I noticed how well he wrote, and I thought how beautifully he must have spoken," she said. "And I started to notice how evenhanded he was in his documentation of the things he observed. And then, of course, I had differing emotions as I started to see his descriptions of black-and-white issues."
The diary, an early Christmas gift from one of Plummer's friends, opens Dec. 15, 1917, when his company was about to cross the Atlantic to France, and ends June 5, 1919, when he was honorably discharged and armed with a ticket to return home to the District.
Written in a fine, clear hand, the entries are often brief: "Called for first time for guard duty. Bright moonlight," reads the entry for Jan. 26, 1918. "Went to town of Libourne in truck. Saw there a meat market, where nothing but horse meat was sold," he wrote on May 18, 1918.
But over the course of a year and a half, he also recorded the impact of the deadly 1918 flu epidemic on the troops; the sadness of seeing a young Belgian boy on crutches come begging into camp; the bitterness of a Christmastime fight that broke out between some black and white troops.
"Friction between the races," he wrote on Dec. 19, 1918. "Though the colored troops are not equipped with guns, according to reports they behaved themselves most bravely and pluckily against the Marines. It seems that the trouble started in a cafe when a Marine Sgt. made some remark which displeased the colored 'boys' there."
An order posted at the military encampment in France is noted, without comment: "The walking of white soldiers with colored women or colored soldiers with white women within the limits of this camp is strictly prohibited."
There also are moments of pleasure, as when he recorded his pride after a Frenchwoman complimented him on his improving language skills or when he wrote about eating out at a cafe and taking a late-night cab back to the camp.
"I think [the experience] afforded him and probably many of the African American soldiers an intellectual freedom that had been stifled in their own country," Vining said, "learning the language and talking to people who had no preconceptions about them except they were people like us."
Roberts-Shorter, who has with time become her family historian, transcribed the 115-page journal late at night, handling it reverently, only after putting on white gloves. She felt a growing interest in Plummer as she typed. She learned that for the rest of his life, he studied French and several other languages. She also was amused to discover, after happening on one of his old patients, that the mature Dr. Plummer was a chain smoker famous for admonishing his patients not to smoke.
Roy and Mary Plummer, who had no children, left the Brookland home they had built in the 1930s to their nephew, Robert L. Plummer, now 86, who is Roberts-Shorter's uncle by marriage. As she and an assistant prepared the house for sale in January, they accumulated more than 50 boxes of old papers, photos and artifacts. With time, she joked, the Plummers became so vivid to her that she began to say regular hellos to the two photographs of them she had framed and placed in her living room.
At some point, Roberts-Shorter said, the family "would very much like" to donate the journal to a museum such as the Smithsonian. She also hopes to see it published someday.
"I want it to be safe and preserved for posterity in an institution that is hopefully timeless," she said. "My other thought is, I want as many people as possible to be aware of it, that it just had so many powerful statements about the times in which he lived."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Gretchen Roberts-Shorter sits in her attic, where she keeps papers and other belongings from the Plummers' house.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)