When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the U.S. Army was generally small, inexperienced and poorly equipped for warfare on the European front. In contrast, National Guard units including the all black, Illinois 8th Infantry Regiment organized in 1898, had battle experience, including federal service in the Spanish-American War and in 1916 on the U.S. – Mexican border. This experience proved valuable to these men as well as their country, when in 1918, as the reorganized 370th Infantry Regiment – assigned to the 93rd Division – they arrived in the European theater of war. Designated as “Provisionary” or “Pioneer” Divisions, they were assigned either to support/supply duties, or direct combat duty embedded with French troops, often on the front lines.
As former members of Company I of the Illinois National Guard or conscripts chosen by the Selective Service program of 1917 and 1918, black men from Quincy, Adams County, the state of Missouri and even farther away took part in what became known as the “Great War” or the “War to End All Wars.” The experiences of the Perkins family, of Quincy and northeast Missouri are part of that story.
According to his draft registration form, filled out in June of 1917, Edward Harrison Perkins, a 27- year- old “natural born” “Ethiopian” living at 819 Elm Street in Quincy, was employed as a teamster by John McHaffey. Born in 1889 to Mason and Fannie Perkins in Palmyra, Missouri, Harrison was one of a family of five sons and four daughters. From census data it appears that after the death of their father in 1914, Fanny brought Harrison and other members of her family to Quincy.
Following his induction into the Army through the Selective Service program and training at Camp Dodge, Perkins was assigned to the all-black 804th Pioneer Infantry and sent to Europe as part of the American Expeditionary Forces, arriving in France sometime in fall 1918. For the remainder of the year, Harrison survived his war-time duties, writing occasionally to his family that he was well. With the end of combat operations on November 11, 1918, Harrison and his unit remained in Europe, assigned to clean up and general field operations.
Three months after the armistice, on Feb. 12, 1919, as he participated in the clearing of an ammunition dump near Mars-La-Tours, France, Perkins was killed by an explosion of abandoned German ordinance. The adjutant general on Feb. 25 notified his mother Fanny, of 828 Chestnut Street, of his death and burial in France.
In October 1919 local soldiers of the 370th, Pioneer Infantry, gathered to form a third Quincy-based American Legion Post composed solely of black veterans. Two other posts, named for Quincyans Joseph W. Emery, Jr. and Henry Root Hill, who had also lost their lives in the war, had already been organized in the city. The prospective members of this new post elected to name it after their dead comrade, Harrison Perkins.
It was not until late June of 1921, however, that Fanny Perkins received word from the U.S. government that her son’s body had been returned to American soil, and would soon be arriving in Quincy for final burial. Perkins’s remains arrived in Quincy early on the morning of July 1st 1921. The papers of that day noted that in addition to his mother, Harrison was survived by four brothers, Mason Jr., Lotus, and Roy of Quincy, Guy of Gary, Ind., and four sisters, Lovenia, Mary Eliza, Freda Estelle and Frances, all married and living elsewhere.
On July 2nd, Perkins’s funeral service was held at the Eighth and Elm Street Baptist Church with the Reverend B. N. Marshall officiating. Perkins’s body was then escorted to Greenmount Cemetery by members of the Harrison Perkins American Legion Post, who also served as pall bearers, and veteran soldiers in full uniform, members of the newly formed Company M of the Illinois National Guard. At the cemetery, members of the Guard fired a three- volley salute over the grave and taps were sounded by Jesse Perkins, also a returned Quincy veteran of the Great War.
Three Perkins brothers, Harrison, Mason and Guy served in WWI, all called through the Selective Service program. While Harrison was apparently without prior military service, his brothers Mason and Guy had been part of the Quincy- based Company I of the Illinois National Guard (Colored). Mason noted three years of prior military service on his registration card.
Although Guy, 23, claimed no prior military service, his name appears along with those of his brother Mason, and Jesse Perkins, the son of Mrs. Sarah Perkins of 922 Elm, in a newspaper roster of former Company I men who were recruited for service in the 8th Regiment on the Mexican border in July 1916. Mason, who served in Company D of the 365th Regiment, came home at the close of the war to join the Harrison Perkins Post of the American Legion in Quincy, as well as Company M of the reconstituted Illinois National Guard.
Relatively little else is known about the post war lives of the Perkins men, and their neighbor Jesse Perkins who played taps at Harrison’s burial in July 1921. U.S. Army Transport Service records indicate that Jessie Perkins of Company B, 323rd Labor Battalion departed from Hoboken, New Jersey on the ship Manchuria on July 10, 1918, and returned to the United States through the port of Brest on July 30, 1919. Eventually he became a resident of the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home at Quincy, where he passed away on the 11th of November, 1957. Today he lies in Sunset Cemetery.
Edward Harrison Perkins was buried in Greenmount Cemetery on July 2nd, 1921, in a lot purchased by his mother Fanny. When Fanny passed away in 1937 she was buried beside her son. As of today, no stone marks the burial places of either son or mother.
“Former Member Co. I Killed in Carizal Fight” Quincy Daily Journal, Sat. July 1, 1916,p. 10.
“Negro Post Favored by Members of Company M” Quincy Daily Whig, Saturday, Oct. 4, 1919, p.3.
“Quincy Colored Boys Over There” Quincy Daily Journal, Tues. October 22, 1918.
“World War I unit became known as ‘the Fighting Black Devils” Once Upon A Time, Quincy Herald Whig, Dec. 3, 2017.
“Harrison Perkins’ Body is Coming” Quincy Daily Herald, Thursday, June 30, 1921, p. 9.
“Colored Soldier Back for Burial” Quincy Daily Herald, Friday, July 1,2921,p. 12.
“Harrison Perkins Military Funeral” Quincy Daily Herald, Tuesday, July 5, 2921, p. 2
“Military Funeral to be Held for Harrison Perkins” Quincy Daily Journal, Thursday, June 30, 1921, p. 3.
U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 retrieved from Ancestry.com
African American Service in the National Guard. https://www.military.com/history/african-american-service-national-guard.html retrieved 2/12/18
U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939. https://search.ancestry.com/collections. Retrieved 2/15/2018