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Mecklenburg’s forgotten men of World War I

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Above, General Jackson Cannon of Bracey
SoVaNow.com / March 28, 2018
‘True Sons of Freedom/Virginia Memory,” an online exhibit produced by the Library of Virginia, features photographs and records of dozens of African Americans from Virginia who served their country during World War I. Rescued from obscurity and dusty shelf, the digitized information has become a major part of the Library’s ongoing centennial observance of Virginia’s role in the Great War.

David Wade, an Illinois resident and amateur cultural anthropologist, was caught by surprise when he received a call from a cousin alerting him to the exhibit. Despite his genealogical research, he had been unable to find much information about the military experience of a forebear who served in the war, his great, great uncle General Jackson Cannon. (General was his given first name).

What Wade did know about Cannon, however, is that after the war he returned home to Bracey, where he helped carry on the family business — operating Cannon’s Ferry on the Roanoke River — and carved out a life as a landowner, farmer and ferryman in the segregated South.

African American families with local ties will find rare images and intriguing information on a number of their Mecklenburg County ancestors who served during World War I, a long-overlooked chapter of American military history that even attentive researchers such as Wade have been at a loss to unearth.

“I have been researching the Cannon family for several years, recently focusing on World War I records for Cannon and other family members,” said Wade. However, he was stymied in his research efforts and blamed a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which destroyed some 16-18 million official military personnel files — including, Wade assumed, all records of service members in World War I.

His assumption, thankfully, was wrong.

After hearing from his cousin, Wade traveled from Illinois to the Library of Virginia in Richmond to view other documents the library has gathered as part of the “True Sons of Freedom” online exhibit.

“The Library of Virginia is one of the nation’s best resources of African American genealogy,” said Wade, who added that he found more information at the library about General Cannon and other family members that is not available online.

The website, truesons.virginiamemory.com (tag line: “They served the nation that refused to serve them”) consists mostly of long-lost photos of black service members from Virginia. Many of the surnames are found in the present day in Mecklenburg County: Baskerville, Butterworth, Evans, Marks, Pettus, Spruill. Accompanying the photos is essential — albeit scant — information about the lives of the WWI soldiers and Guardsmen, taken from a questionnaire that the State of Virginia distributed to service members in 1919 after they returned home from the war.

Of 100,000 questionnaires sent out, 15,000 were returned. Some 2,500 came from African American veterans. General Cannon filled out the questionnaire and sent it in November 9, 1920.

In June 1928, the commission in charge of collecting the records — created by Gov. Westmoreland Davis nine years earlier — disbanded. The records were transferred to the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) and gathered dust until 2017. That’s when the Library of Virginia digitized the questionnaires and the soldiers’ photographs for online display as part of the centennial celebration.

Wade wasn’t the only descendant to take note of Cannon’s place in the exhibit. Cannon's granddaughter, Kim Cannon, lives today in Richmond. “I thought it was an awesome exhibit that recognized the sacrifice of my grandfather during an unpredictable and uneasy time,” she said.

One of eight children of Walter Cannon and his second wife, Sophia Bracey Cannon, Cannon was born in Bracey, Mecklenburg County on Jan. 27, 1896.

His father had been born a slave, the property of the Cannon family, local plantation owners. Following the Civil War and emancipation, Walter took the Cannon name. He became a successful entrepreneur, buying up land and starting the ferry operation across the unpredictable Roanoke River.

He purchased a 29-acre farm in Bracey, Mecklenburg County from W.H. and Rebecca Shaw on March 16, 1889 for $75. From a deed obtained by the Library of Virginia, the land is recorded as follows: The “lands ... bounded...on the North West by the lands of Peter King’s estate by the Roanoke River east by the lands of W.H. Shaw.”

This is where General Jackson Cannon and his brothers and sisters were born and raised.

It was there that Walter Cannon owned and operated Cannon’s Ferry until his death in September 1915.

General’s oldest brother, Captain Cea Cannon, took over the ferry operation in their late father’s stead. General, and his brothers, Colonel and John Daniel, assisted Captain as ferrymen until military duty interfered.

(Although the ferry no longer exists, the original site is close by Cannon’s Ferry Road, which leads into a housing subdivision on Lake Gaston bearing the same name. The subdivision fronts Highway 903 a short distance west of the Lake Gaston Fire Department.)

With the outbreak of war, Cannon’s work on the ferry boat would be put on pause. A hundred years ago, on July 16, 1918, General reported for duty at Army Camp Ft. Lee in Hopewell. On his questionnaire, when asked about his attitude toward military service, he wrote, “Felt it was my duty to honor country’s call.”

Cannon was assigned to “A” Company of the 338th Service Battalion and trained for one month before receiving deployment orders to France. Jami Bryan, managing editor of http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com, wrote an article that sheds some light on duties Cannon might perform as a member of all-black service battalion:

“The first black troops sent overseas belonged to service units. Because the work that these units did was absolutely invaluable to the war effort, commanders promised special privileges in return for high-yield results. With such motivation, the soldiers would often work for twenty-four hours straight unloading ships and transporting men and materiel to and from various bases, ports, and railroad depots.

“As the war continued and soldiers took to the battlefields, black labor units became responsible for digging trenches, removing unexploded shells from fields, clearing disabled equipment and barbed wire, and burying soldiers killed in action.”

From Sept. 12, 1918 to Aug. 8, 1919, General served his country in France. He received an honorable discharge from Camp Dix, New Jersey on Aug. 21, 1919 and returned to his home in Bracey to resume his life as a farmer and local ferryman.

Cannon died on April 30, 1957 and is buried at Saint Marks Cemetery in Bracey along with his mother, father, and brothers, Captain Cea, Colonel, and Jesse James.

In the course of researching the World War I records of Cannon, David Wade discovered other members of the Cannon family who served during the war. The same is true, he notes, of other African Americans from Mecklenburg County who answered the nation’s call to wartime service.

“Mecklenburg County was already a primary family research target, but the Library of Virginia exhibit and documents for General Cannon inspired me on to further explore family connections in Mecklenburg,” said Wade. “In fact,” he added, “I discovered that General’s younger brother, John Daniel Cannon joined the Army a year earlier than General and served in France at about the same time.”

The Library of Virginia online exhibit, “True Sons of Freedom/Virginia Memory” is found at http://truesons.virginiamemory.com/



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