James Elic Alams, who worked as a janitor for Clemson College in 1917, is included in the exhibit “World War I and the Clemson Community” on display in the lobby of R.M. Cooper Library through May 15, 2017. He was one of several African American employees at Clemson who served their country in the armed forces during World War I.
After Alams was drafted in October 1917, he served with Company B of the 371st Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division of the National Army. The 371st was comprised of African American draftees, mostly from South Carolina, who served under white officers, including several Clemson graduates. They trained at the newly created Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina.
Upon arrival in France in April 1918 the 371st soldiers were rejected for combat duty by the American Expeditionary Force because of their race. They were transferred to and served under French command. The 371st participated in some of the fiercest fighting of the war and earned numerous awards for bravery.
Alams was one of a small group of African American soldiers promoted to Sergeant. He was wounded in action in Champagne, France in September 1918 but remained with the 371st until receiving an honorable discharge in March 1919.
Other African American Clemson employees who served in the Army overseas during World War I include Ralph Durham, a cook who served with the 371st Infantry from October 1917 to February 1919 and James Hunter, a College janitor, who served with several units including the 316th Service Battalion. Edward Randolph, who worked with the College’s horses and wagons, served with the 156th Depot Brigade before going overseas with the 321st Service Battalion.
Crosby Town (Towns?) was a College janitor who served with the 371st Infantry and the 304th Service Battalion. He served overseas for 18 months. Jefferson Whitt worked on the College Farm before serving with the 156th Depot Brigade and the 350th Field Artillery. Jim Davis also worked on the College farm and served with the 371st Infantry and went overseas with the 306th Service Battalion.
James Fruster and Robert McKinney (McKinnie ?) were both College waiters and served with the 156th Depot Brigade, remaining in the United States. Fruster earned the rank of Corporal before being discharged in April 1919. Toll Brown, who worked as a clothes presser, also served with the 156th Depot Brigade.
There is no information in Clemson’s official records about the World War I service of the college’s African American employees. The information here is pieced together from military records from the National Archives and Records Administration available through Ancestry.com. The records sometimes include place of occupation at the time of registration for the draft. (For several of the servicemen, it’s unclear if they worked officially for Clemson College or privately for faculty members who lived on the college campus.)
Volume 2 of The Official Roster of South Carolina Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the World War, 1917-18 (available in Cooper Library) lists all of the state’s World War I African American servicemen with the basics of their service records.
Black Soldiers in World War I: Anderson, Pickens, and Oconee Counties, South Carolina by W.J. Megginson (available in Special Collections and Archives) pulls out the names of soldiers in those three counties from Volume 2’s statewide alphabetized listing.
Differences in spelling of names on the draft record, the official listing and other documents, makes further research into the activities of these men even more challenging.
Few World War I African American soldiers at Clemson or elsewhere received any recognition for their military service. Although not connected to Clemson College, Freddie Stowers from nearby Sandy Springs, South Carolina became the first African American soldier to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in either World War I or II. He was killed in the same battle where James Alams was wounded. Although Stowers was killed in action in September 1918, he was not awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor until 1991.