From my brother to my great-grandfather, four generations of men in my family have served in the United States Armed Forces. I grew up not far from the New Jersey Air Force base where my father and grandfather were stationed and the Army base where my brother was stationed before being deployed to Iraq. (He’s back now with more stripes on his arm and ready to serve again if called). But I never met or knew much about my great-grandfather who served in World War I, so this month’s Carnival of African-American Genealogy theme honoring our ancestors who served gave me a great opportunity to learn more about him through some research.
My great-grandfather, Lifford Emerson Coleman was born in Tennessee on July 28, 1890, something I first learned when I came across his World War I draft card shown above. I’d always assumed that he was born and raised in either Oklahoma where he met my great-grandmother and had two children with her, or in Texas where my great-grandmother was from. Lifford was 28 when he registered for the draft and had a wife and two young children at home. My granny, Louise Coleman Walton was just 2 at the time and her younger brother Bill may have just been on the way. This draft card also shows Lifford’s signature, the only one of his that I’ve ever seen.
This draft card alone isn’t proof that Lifford was actually enlisted.
As stated on Ancestry.com where I found this record, “On 6 April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and officially entered World War I. Six weeks later, on 18 May 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed, which authorized the president to increase the military establishment of the United States. As a result, every male living within the United States between the ages of eighteen and forty-five was required to register for the draft…but not all the men who registered actually served in the armed forces.”
But I know from my grandmother’s stories that he did in fact join the Army. She remembers her baby brother being dressed up like a soldier as well as a photo of her father in his actual Army uniform. (If only the ancestry fairy is listening and will make that photo appear!) But even better proof of Lifford’s service is the money she and her brother received from her father’s Army pension.
“When I was older, around 12 or maybe even 14, a man came by and told Mother that she could get benefits because her husband was in the Army and to get herself a lawyer. Sure enough, she did,” my granny said when I asked her about her father’s service in World War I. “I thought I was rich. I’d never seen so much money.”
A teacher told her she should save it, so she took it to the post office to deposit it.
The woman at the post office at first told her, “I don’t think they let colored do that,'” but Granny was patient, let the woman check with her boss and was granted a safe heaven for her benefits.
“I gave them my fingerprints, my money and from then on I always put my money in savings,” Granny said.
My great-grandfather died at a young age and met a violent end, but not in the Army. My grandmother once told me he was stabbed to death in a bar. But the other day when I asked her about it, she could only remember that someone killed him. Since he was taken from her when she was so young, she doesn’t remember much about him or what kind of work he did. On his draft card, under occupation it says “labor” and his employer is listed as a railroad company. I only noticed this after I got off the phone with my grandmother, so I look forward to being able to give her some information about her dad and hope that it will cheer her.
Armed with Granny’s recollections and this draft card to guide me, I’m sending a request to the National Archives for Lifford’s military records including any pensions received. I can’t wait to see what else his service records tell me about this World War I veteran. Thanks to Lifford and to all who served and thanks to this carnival for prodding me to find out more about my great-grandfather.