A Family’s Journey From Slavery to Soldier

Fred Atwater, abt. 1910. From the Durham County Library (https://bit.ly/3yckt97)

The photo above, taken around 1910, shows a young Fred Atwater.  The 18-year-old was about to take a journey few African-Americans would experience: serving in World War 1.  He would later meet his future wife in Reading, Pennsylvania and move to her hometown of Mansfield, Ohio to raise a family.  Many African-Americans who served hoped to prove their loyalty to a segregated America, but returned to the same racism they left behind.  This helped to “create the “New Negro Movement” of the 1920s, which promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics.”[1]

Fred Atwater’s grandfather, Stephen, was a former slave in North Carolina.  A list of African-American cohabitation certificates from Orange County, North Carolina in 1866 state that, “the following freedmen together with their wives lately slaves but now emancipated appeared before (___) Atwater an acting justice of the peace and declared that they now live and cohabitate together as husband and wife.”  The certificate goes on to list a number of couples, including “Stephen Atwater and his wife Penting (Pentina/Peutina), 1861.”[2]  1870 and 1880 census records show the couple living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and having a number of children, including Fred Atwater’s father, Felix, born about 1861.

Freedman Marriage Record for Stephen Atwater [2] 

Felix Atwater would marry Jennie Moore on December 8, 1881.  Felix, like his father, was listed as a farmer throughout census records and also, like his father, had a number of children, eight being listed on the 1900 U.S. Census.  One of these eight children was eight-year-old Freddie Atwater. His Veterans Compensation Application from 1934 list Durham, North Carolina, March 15, 1892 as his place and date of birth.  Fred Atwater grew up during the Jim Crow Era, where laws were created to keep races separated and would have been six-years-old when the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 happened.  On November 10, 1898, 2,000 white men overthrew the biracial government of Wilmington, destroying property and businesses of African-American citizens and killing anywhere from 60-300 people.  This was the most successful coup in American history resulting in no African-American citizen of Wilmington serving in public office again until 1972.[3]

Fred Atwater would soon make his way to Reading, Pennsylvania where he was inducted into the Army and served in the 803rd Pioneer Infantry.  “More than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor.”[4]  Atwater participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, one of the attacks which brought and end to the war.  Atwater served overseas from September 10, 1918, to July 18, 1919, and was honorably discharged at Camp Dix, New Jersey on July 20, 1919.[5]

The U.S.S. Philippines returning from France. Fred Atwater was on this ship returning home. Courtesy of Library of Congress, “803rd Pioneer Infantry Band, No. 16,” 1919

After the war, Atwater returned to Reading, Pennsylvania. In the 1920 census, he is shown as lodging with the family of Andrew Rudolph, including his wife Catherine and daughter Julia.  Catherine Cline had married the Jamaican immigrant in Manhattan, New York on July 28, 1917.  In a 1990 interview in the Mansfield New-Journal, Catherine says Andrew deserted the family[6] and she moved back to Mansfield.  The 1922 Mansfield city directory lists her as living at 193 North Franklin with Fred Atwater.  In December 1922, Catherine officially filed for divorce from Andrew Rudolph and, on February 3, 1923, Catherine marries Fred Atwater in Cleveland, Ohio.  The couple had three children: Frederick Jr., James, and Mildred.  Fred Atwater died on February 12, 1943, in the Veterans Hospital in Brecksville, Ohio.[7]

Mansfield News Journal, 12 December 1922

Fred Atwater and Catherine Rudolf Marriage, 03 February 1923.

Shortly after Atwater’s death, his son, Fred Jr., enlisted in the service and served in World War II.[8]  His grandson, Fred Atwater III, worked for the Mansfield City Schools for 32 years, retiring on July 31, 2000[9] and helped to revitalize John’s Park.[10]


Sources:

  1. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/the-new-negro-movement.html
  2. Ancestry.com. North Carolina, U.S., Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
  3. https://time.com/5861644/1898-wilmington-massacre-essential-lesson-state-violence/
  4. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african-american-odyssey/world-war-i-and-postwar-society.html
  5. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, U.S., World War I Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
  6. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 12 March 1990, p 9.
  7. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 15 February 1943, p 2.
  8. Ancestry.com. U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2005.
  9. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 11 June 2000, p 11.
  10. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 05 October 1999, p 1.

One thought on “A Family’s Journey From Slavery to Soldier

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s