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.

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America Spencer and Her Journey to Freedom

In her obituary, it says that America Spencer was a gentle woman “whose innate kindness and sterling qualities of character had placed her high in the esteem of the people she served.”[1]  “Miss America” was how most people address her, the same name given to her by Louis Bromfield in his novel “The Farm,” which, in part, details her story and activities.  Miss America’s life was not easy.  She was born into slavery around 1860 in southern Virginia and made her way north to Mansfield in the late 1880s or early 1890s.  She would later study cosmetology in New York and return to Mansfield to practice her trade.  In addition to this, she made many of the white lace wedding dresses for the “ladies of quality” in the area.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date of birth for America Spencer, but she was given the birth name of America Pannell or Pannill around 1860.  The earliest record for America is the 1870 U.S. Census.  In it, 10-year-old America Pannill is living in Horse Pasture, Henry County, Virginia with Sus and Elizabeth Mitchell,[2] Elizabeth most likely being her sister, and their two children, George and Hannah.  Sus Mitchell and Elizabeth Pannell were married on March 2, 1867.  On the marriage record, it lists Lewis and Chloe as Elizabeth’s parents.[3]  In America Spencer’s obituary, it lists her mother as being known as “Aunt Chloe”  and, in 1912, it was reported in the “Mansfield News” that she left the city to attend her mother’s funeral in Martinsville, Virginia.  In the article, it states her mother’s name was Clora Panmell and she was over 100-years-old.[4] 

In the 1880 U.S. Census, America Pannill is listed as a servant in the home of a 60-year-old white couple, J. C. and E. M. Mitchell in Martinsville, Henry County Virginia.  On the Census, America is listed as 25, black, and with two mulatto children, Will, 6,  and Ida, 3.[5]  This is the last we see of America in Virginia.  It is quite possible that George Pannill was the slave owner in Henry County, Virginia where America was born.  He had a number of slaves in the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules.  George was married to Bethenia Calloway, whose mother was America Hairston.  The Hairston’s were one of the largest slave-owning families in America, owning thousands of slaves across four states.  The 1860 Slave Schedule lists 27 slaves owned by George Pannill, one slave is a 5-month-old female, but it is impossible to know if this is America as no names were listed.[6]

The first records of Miss America in Mansfield come from city directories.  The 1895 city directory lists her as working at 35 Sturges Ave. in the home of Edward F. Preston, a traveling salesman.  In the 1899 directory, she is at the home of Charles G. Willison at 70 Marion Ave.  Willison was the manager of Wolf & Co.  By 1900 the U.S. Census lists her in the home of Monroe Harman as a servant, living at 55 Sturges Ave.  It was in Harman’s home where the wedding of Miss America Pannell and Robert H. Spencer took place.  Spencer worked at The Buckingham and said he was a former baseball player, playing at one time for the Cuban Giants, the first professional African-American team.[7]  The wedding was arranged by Harman’s daughter, Viola, and was attended by nearly 100 people “including some of the most prominent in Mansfield.”[8]  However, the marriage did not appear to be a happy one.  The following year, America appeared before the mayor charging Robert with non-support and claiming he spent both of their earnings recklessly.[9]  Robert continued to have run-ins with the law and, according to America, he left town in 1910 and never returned.[10]

In August of 1907, America traveled to New York to study hairdressing and the Marcel Wave,[11] a popular hairstyle through the 1920s.  She had a natural talent for the work and this, combined with her seamstress skills, made her a popular choice for brides on their wedding day.  She was a humble woman and gave far beyond her means, often taking in orphaned children and caring for them.  When she died on April 30, 1938, Miss America had one request: that she be dressed in a white lace dress, the same as she had done for so many women of Mansfield.[12]


Sources:

  1. The Mansfield News-Journal, 30 April 1938, p. 1.
  2. Year: 1870; Census Place: Horse Pasture, Henry, Virginia; Roll: M593_1656; Page: 18B; Family History Library Film: 553155
  3. Ancestry.com. Virginia, U.S., Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014.
  4. The Mansfield News, 17 October 1912, p. 3.
  5. Year: 1880; Census Place: Martinsville, Henry, Virginia; Roll: 1373; Page: 103C; Enumeration District: 131
  6. The National Archives in Washington DC; Washington DC, USA; Eighth Census of the United States 1860; Series Number: M653; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census; Record Group Number: 29
  7. The Mansfield News, 21 January 1904, p. 2.
  8. The Mansfield News, 06 February 1902, p. 8.
  9. The Mansfield News, 17 August 1903, p. 2.
  10. The Mansfield News, 03 May 1921, p. 2.
  11. The Mansfield News, 03 September 1907, p. 5.
  12. The Mansfield News-Journal, 02 May 1938, p. 1.