Archive for June, 2011

Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program atN.C.StateUniversity.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister.

Today I ran across some of Elmer Gibson’s papers related to his involvement in debates over whether or not to integrate the United States Army. Admittedly, I have little knowledge about the integration that took place in the Armed Forces shortly after World War II, so I had to do some investigation of my own in order to fully understand Gibson’s position on the idea.

The United States Armed Forces have an interesting history of integration and segregation throughout their existence. White and black soldiers fought next to each other starting as far back as the North American colonies. It was not until the War of 1812 that white and black units began to be separated, and remained so until the Korean War. Even when the Army was segregated, many black soldiers still chose to fight and played very important roles in the victories gained by theUnited States. Throughout World War I and World War II, commissioned officers were mostly white, with black troops serving as truck drivers, dock workers, and other roles that did not usually involve combat.

By the time troops returned home from World War II, Army officials were being called on by Civil Rights leaders to desegregate all of the Armed Forces. In 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the integration of all sections of the Armed Forces. Even with Executive Order 9981, integration did not seriously occur until the Korean War was well under way. After the first few months of the Korean War, the Armed Forces were facing incredibly high numbers of white losses and finally began accepting black troops as replacements. This forced immediate integration of many units and showed that these units could still perform well in combat situations. Army officials took notice, and on July 26, 1951 the Army officially announced its plans to desegregate.

In Gibson’s papers there are several items related to the desegregation of the Army, and some proved to be very interesting. One in particular caught my attention because of the hand-written notes attached with it. The item was a survey that Gibson completed titled “Employment of Negro Manpower.” What I find most impressive about Gibson’s responses to the questions asked are his concise answers, free from any hint of anger or hostility regarding segregation.

For example, Gibson responded to the question “Should the quota system [in regards to race] be abolished?” with the following answer: “Yes. To establish a quota on the basis of race is discriminatory. However, to maintain the proper balance, the physical and mental (or aptitude) and educational standard should be raised and then form requirements for all enlistments.” Later in the survey, Gibson suggests that “A service school should be established and courses conducted on the program and policy of the Department of the Army with regard to desegregation.”

Gibson seemed to be very aware of the need for slow change in order for it to be well received and have staying power. At the same time, he was clearly not afraid to speak his mind and let the Army know how he, an African-American in the Army, felt about the Army being segregated. It seems as though his belief was to educate soldiers on the positive aspects of desegregation to make it as smooth as possible while also encouraging the Army to create higher standards of physical fitness and mental aptitude, instead of using standards based on race.

It is easy to forget, even as a graduate student in history, that segregation was once a part of people’s daily lives throughout theUnited States. To think that even if you wanted to serve your country as a soldier, you would still be separated by race, is something that is hard for me to conceive of. Having the opportunity to dig around in Gibson’s papers as I get them ready to head to the shelves has been an eye-opening experience for me. It is always good to be reminded of past figures who have helped overcome obstacles so that we forget they even once existed.

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Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at N.C. State University.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister. 

My latest find in working the Elmer P. Gibson collection concerns the correspondence regarding his Legion of Merit Award in 1945.  It delighted me, and it is wonderful to know that I have to opportunity to work with the papers of such an incredible man. I get more excited each time I sit down with his collection because I feel like I am getting the opportunity to know a man who still has so much to teach us. He worked hard and always seemed to go above and beyond his assigned duties and made himself useful wherever possible. Rev. Gibson felt that it was his duty to serve all people, not just certain groups, and that is a lesson still worth learning today.

The Legion of Merit Award, first awarded in 1942, is very prestigious and usually awarded to members of the armed services that display exceptionally meritorious conduct in their roles and go above and beyond in the performance of their daily duties and achievements.

He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service between Jan. 25, 1944 and Oct. 17, 1945. During this time, he was Regimental Chaplain of the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed in theAleutian Islands. He mentions in a biographical note he wrote that, at the time he was awarded the Legion of Merit Award he was one of only two living African-American chaplains to receive the decoration. From what can be found in his collection, he was recommended for the award by several of his peers and superiors, highlighting the fact that he must have been a truly deserving recipient. In one such letter of recommendation from a peer, Chaplain William E. Austill, Rev. Gibson was described as such:

“He has constantly maintained a high quality of work, in spite of the fact that there were no promotions available for him in his Regiment nor in the Department. He had the best interests of the men of his Regiment in mind at all times. He sent pictures of them to home-town papers, whenever the men were given recognition in any event…I felt it my duty to call his superior achievements to your attention. If there would have been any opportunity whatsoever, we would have promoted him to the rank of Major, but he suffered the same fate as several others in the Department who had been in grade a long time, but for whom there were no openings.”

Rev. Gibson was also praised by many for performing services not only for the black troops for which he was assigned, but also offering religious services for the white troops as well. He believed strongly in bringing white and black men together as often as possible in order to teach each group tolerance for the other. From the letters that I have found in his collection, his peers found this to be an especially praiseworthy quality.

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Would you rather be a pirate or a slave?  That question might have been posed to the human cargo aboard the slave ship La Concorde en route from West Africa to Martinique, were language no barrier.  The vessel came under attack by two pirate ships in November 1717.  Two a small sloops captained by the notorious Blackbeard, who seized the larger Concorde, and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge.  Most of the 455 blacks aboard were off loaded and taken to nearby Bequia island to be left with the ship’s crew.  But a large number of them traveled on with Blackbeard.  Pirate ships and slave ships were contemporaneous, and pirates often took the Africans when raiding those ships.

African trade beads and gold dust from West Africa are among the artifacts recovered from the shipwreck of Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge and on display at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. These links to the African slave trade helped to establish the identity of the wreck near Beaufort, as the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Pirate crews were a cosmopolitan lot, picking up mariners are various ports in the known world of different races, religions, and ethnicities.  So diverse were these seamen that they gave rise to the term “motley crew,” as historian Marcus Redicker details in his book “Villains of All Nations.”  “It was the skill and ability of a sailor that determined his worth,” Redicker explained. A fierce warrior, for example, might make a good pirate.  Ability, not color, determined status.

Even so, the role of blacks on pirate ships is debated.  Some insist that they would be limited to menial roles, and treated as they would have been ashore.  Would that have been on the American shore, or some other?  Slavery did not become its most restrictive even in America until the 1830s.  Questions often have arisen when blacks are seen out of the servile role, say as a soldier, pilot, or president.  So too for black pirates.

At the defeat and death of Blackbeard, the Royal Navy seized the vessel Adventure, then Blackbeard’s base of operations.  At least a third of the Blackbeard’s downsized crew were Negroes, and Blackbeard had left posted in the hold the huge Negro Caesar, “whom he had bred up” with instructions to blow up the ship if the pirates lost that last fight.  But that fight was not aboard Adventure, Blackbeard lost, and Caesar and his mates were captured.  All 13 pirates were taken prisoner and removed to Williamsburg for trail.  The five blacks were tried with the rest of Blackbeard’s captured crew in March 1719.  In the end they were not sold as taken slaves, they were tried and hanged as pirates.

It is said that the pirate creed is “A short and merry life for me.”  For the five black pirates that were hanged with Blackbeard’s crew, the 16 months as free men may have offered experiences far removed from their childhood dreams.

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Brynn Hoffman has a summer of surprises in store for her. She is learning the inspiring story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during WWII and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at North Carolina State University and is interning with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History in Raleigh.  She will be blogging about what she learns about him, and what it’s like to be an archivist working with the Military Archives.  Hoffman’s internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister. 

Recently the Military Collection received the private collection of Elmer P. Gibson, a black chaplain in the United States Army throughout World War II and the Korean War.  This collection found its way to the North Carolina State Archives through the generous donation of Gibson’s son, also named Elmer, and through the hard-work of Earl Ijames, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History.  Gibson’s son is well-known in the jazz community as a great musician, and first contacted the N.C. Museum of History because he wanted to donate the saxophone of late jazz great Mr. Numa “Pee Wee”Moore.  During a conversation with Ijames, Gibson mentioned that his father was one of the first black chaplains in the United States Army and wondered if the museum would be interested in his collection.  Ijames jumped at the opportunity to have such an important piece of history at the museum, and of course accepted the offer.

Part of the Elmer Gibson collection.

The Elmer P. Gibson Collection was quite extensive and included, among other things, two uniforms, a field kit for communion, and hundreds of letters and photographs.  The uniforms, field kit, and several other similar items were kept at the N.C. Museum of History, but the photographs, letters, and various other paper documents were donated to the North Carolina State Archives to join the Military Collection.  The collection held at the State Archives includes documents from Gibson’s time inChaplainSchool, paperwork and publications associated with the U.S. Army, information about his 10 year term as president of Morristown College in Tennessee, in addition to the many letters and photographs previously mentioned. 

Although Gibson’s ministerial career prior to and following his time in the Army is long and noteworthy, the interest the Military Collection holds in his papers is his accomplishments during his many years spent as a chaplain in the United States Army.  Gibson entered the service as a 1st Lieutenant in the Chaplain Corps on Feb. 10, 1941 and on July 5, 1947 he was commissioned as a Major in the Chaplain Corps of the Regular Army, which was one of the highest commissions of permanent grade of any black man in the Regular Army.  For his exceptional performance of duty during his time in theAleutian Islands, Gibson received the Legion of Merit Award, which, at the time, made him one of only two living black chaplains to receive this high honor.  For his service during the Korean War, Gibson was honored with the Bronze Star and the Oak Leaf Cluster in 1952.

Elmer Gibson is an especially interesting person because of his long and noteworthy career, both in and out of the U.S. Army.  Held in exceptionally high regard by his superiors, peers, and the soldiers he served in the United States Army, his papers indicate that he also played a role in many discussions held about desegregating the Army and what that would mean for all parties involved.  Gibson was also a strong supporter of higher education for black Americans and played a role in black education after his time in the Army.

The Military Collection at the North Carolina State Archives is extremely lucky to have such an extensive collection from such an incredible veteran.  There is no doubt that this collection will be extremely useful for researchers and I am excited to see what it has in store for me!

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The boldest and most notorious pirate infesting the waters of England’s North American and Caribbean colonies in the early 1700s was Blackbeard.  Occurring during the “Golden Age of Piracy,” his activities and those of his contemporaries are an integral part of America’s colonial history.   Artifacts recovered from his flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge are exhibited at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, N.C.

  • The pirate’s infamous deeds spread his name on both sides of the Atlantic; Blackbeard’s name may yet be found in history books, and in the archives and public records in Great Britain, France, Spain, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
  • His original name is thought to be Edward Thatch (also spelled Thach or Thache), and he likely was born around 1680.  Blackbeard died in 1718 in a fierce fight off Ocracoke Island.  Historical documents suggest either Bristol or London in England, or Jamaica, as possible locations of his birth.
  • Indications are that Blackbeard was born into an intelligent, well-to-do family.  He could read and write and corresponded with merchants.  He seemed equally at ease with ruffians and governors.
  • Blackbeard is thought to have served in Queen Anne’s War between England and Spain, which lasted from 1702-1713.  He is believed to have been a privateer, sailing out of Kingston, Jamaica to prey on French ships for Britain.


Blackbeard – Master Self-Marketer

After the war, Blackbeard reportedly sailed in consort with the pirate crew of Captain Benjamin Hornigold, sailing out of New Providence in the Bahamas.  He proved a fierce and able pirate, and captured the French slave ship, La Concorde in 1717 off St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean.  Blackbeard transformed the slaver into his flagship and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge.

  • Blackbeard crafted his appearance to enhance his reputation.  He was described as a “tall spare man” with a long black beard from which he took his name.  Before battle he would plait the beard into little pigtails, tie them with colored ribbons and twist some braids behind his ears.  Immediately before battle he would light several long, slow-burning hemp cords and tuck them under his hat, allowing wisps of smoke to curl up around his face.
  • He wore pistols, daggers and a cutlass in a belt about his waist.  Across his chest he wore a sling that held three brace of pistols, all six primed, cocked and ready to fire.
  • Blackbeard victimized ships from the Caribbean to New England.  Legend has it that he used several hideouts in North Carolina and that Ocracoke Inlet was a favorite.  An anchorage inside Ocracoke Inlet is still known as “Teach’s Hole.”


Blackbeard – Mastered by a Royal Lieutenant

On Friday, Nov. 22, 1718, Blackbeard met his death in a battle off Ocracoke Island.  Virginia Gov. Alexander Spotswood leased two sloops with British commanders and crew; each had a pilot from North Carolina.  Caught by surprise, short-handed, and tricked into doing battle, Blackbeard came to a bloody end.

  • On the blood soaked deck of the small sloop sent to attack the pirate, Lt. Robert Maynard confronted Blackbeard.  It seemed a classic face-off of good and evil that demanded death as the only resolution.  Reportedly, each pulled pistols and fired upon meeting; Blackbeard missed his mark.  Maynard’s shot plowed through Blackbeard’s imposing body.  They continued to fight with swords; as Blackbeard moved in for a finishing blow with his cutlass, another seaman approached and slashed his throat.
  • The legend says Blackbeard fought on, in spite of bullet wounds and gashed neck, as other British seamen joined in for the kill.  Even while being stabbed, he yet cocked a pistol to continue the fight as he fell dead.  His head was then cut off and hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship for the trip back to Virginia as proof of his demise.


This information was collected from “Blackbeard the Pirate”, 1974, by Robert E. Lee and “The Pirates of North Carolina”, 1960, by Hugh F. Rankin.  Additional information from Phil Masters of Intersal, Inc., Richard Lawrence, formerly with the Underwater Archaeology Branch, N.C. Office of Archives and History; and David Moore, nautical archaeologist, N.C. Maritime

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