Correspondence between the Reverend J. Edward Nash, Sr., Pastor, Michigan Street Baptist Church, Buffalo, NY and African-American soldiers during World War II.
During the Second World War, African-American soldiers found that the circumstances of the war in which they fought often times stood in contrast to the world from whence they had come. The reality often conflicted with the ideals they had sworn to fight for, and if needs be, die for. Segregated units in the armed services, Jim Crow segregation at home, unequal access to jobs and education, and a general marginalization as second-class citizens constituted only a small portion of the situation faced by young African-American soldiers as they enlisted or were drafted into the military on the eve of U.S. involvement in World War II. This reality marked the perception of African-American soldiers as they prepared to fight a war against the Axis powers, and for the liberation of the Jewish people of Europe who had suffered at the hands of Nazi racism. What an irony this must have seemed for a young African-American soldier, who could see in the genocide of the Jews the lynchings of the South.
For the young African-American soldiers from the Michigan Street Baptist Church of Buffalo, New York, this irony would have been felt. Nonetheless, as true patriots committed to the ideals of democracy and the liberation of all subjugated peoples, they marched off to war. The Michigan Street Baptist Church had been the anchor of their community prior to entrance in the service, and would continue to be so during their service. Approximately 40 young black soldiers from the Michigan Street Baptist Church were involved in the deployments of World War II. (2) Their correspondence with their Pastor, Reverend J. Edward Nash, would serve as a testament to truth of the circumstances of the war in which they served, their personal experiences, and the endeavors of their spiritual community at home to tend their needs.
The Michigan Street Baptist Church of Buffalo, New York has a long and distinctive history within the local African-American community and the City of Buffalo at large. (3) The church was originally formed some time between 1832 and 1837, comprised of the Black congregants of the Washington Street Church--the first Baptist church in Buffalo. (4) The Michigan Street Baptist Church came to inhabit its building at 511 Michigan St. in 1846, after a campaign of fundraising within the community. (5) In 1974, having been witness to, and participant in, nearly a century and a half of struggle for racial equality, the church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The church's role in the struggle for racial equality is as old as the organization of the church itself. As was the case of other black churches being organized at this time throughout New York State and the United States, the Michigan Street Baptist Church rose to the challenge of confronting the scourge of slavery. In 1842, before the congregation possessed the ability to worship in a building of their own, the church adopted a resolution opposing the institution of slavery. (6) Buffalo's close proximity to Canada provided a stream of fugitive slaves seeking safety across the border, and the church availed itself as a "stop" on the Underground Railroad. (7) In the twentieth century, the Michigan Street Baptist Church was involved in campaigns for decent housing, civil rights, and equal employment opportunities for African-Americans. (8)
The Reverend J. Edward Nash became pastor of the Michigan Street Baptist Church in 1892 and served as Pastor until his retirement in 1953. Reverend Nash was born in antebellum Virginia in 1868, the son of a free father and enslaved mother. In 1886 Nash attended the Wayland Seminary and College as a student in the Academic and Theological program. (9) A few short years after his graduation from the program be emigrated to Buffalo to begin his position as Pastor. (10) His wife Frances, and son Jesse, were integral members of the community as well.
As Pastor of the Michigan Street Baptist Church for over 60 years, Rev. Nash's leadership in the African-American community of Buffalo was one of great legacy. Rev. Nash was involved in the founding of the Buffalo chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League, was treasurer of the Western New York Baptist Association, and was the secretary of the Ministers Alliance of Buffalo. (11) In 1910 Nash was host to Booker T. Washington on his visit to Buffalo to meet with leaders of the African-American community. He was a close friend and former college classmate of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem. The two were frequent correspondents. On the occasion of Powell's engagements in Buffalo, he was a house guest at the Nash residence at 36 Potter St., just behind the church. (12) In honor of Reverend Nash, Potter St. was renamed Nash street in 1953. (13) Within the Michigan Street Baptist Church, Reverend Nash stood as a pillar of the African-American community, a leader, a spiritual guide, and a comrade.
It is with little wonder, then, that the young boys of the Michigan Street Baptist Church began their correspondence with Reverend Nash. As a father-figure, as a symbol of their strong community at home, as a beacon of hope, Reverend Nash would perhaps have been the first person the young boys would have written to after having sent off a letter to their mothers. Feeling the loneliness of being thousands of miles away from home and family, experiencing the degrading insult of serving in a segregated unit, and being confronted with the mortality of warfare, the young African-American boys from the Michigan Street Baptist Church of Buffalo, New York put pen to paper and reached out across the wide seas to the solace of Reverend Nash.
The young soldiers began correspondence with Reverend Nash in 1941. (14) The correspondence kept by Reverend Nash included letters, postcards, poems, notes, and other items sent to him by at least 26 soldiers. (15) Most of the young black soldiers were members of the Michigan Street Baptist Church. Some of the letters, however, were received from soldiers who had a connection to Reverend Nash and the church, but did not necessarily consider themselves to be members. This loose association did not cause the Reverend to refrain from replying. In fact, Reverend Nash replied in kind to correspondence received from the young soldiers who sought his conversation, or a word from home.
During the war Reverend Nash received letters from, and replied to, all three of the Wilcox brothers--Leon, Calvin, and William. (16) Reverend Nash and Leon Wilcox wrote each other frequently from 1943 to 1945. On a plain white postcard postmarked April 10th, 1943, Private Leon Wilcox wrote a brief note to Reverend Nash:
Dear Rev. Nash, Well, I'm in the army now. We have a wonderful chaplain here. His words of wisdom are we will be as good a soldier as we have faith in God. Please pray for me that I may be the same. Sincerely Yours, Leon (17)
In his next letter to Reverend Nash, written on stationery from the Air Corps Technical School, Keesler Field Mississippi, Wilcox penned a letter that illuminates some of the themes woven in the letters from the soldiers. (18) A little over one month after first communicating with Reverend Nash, Leon asked for the Reverend's forgiveness for not having written sooner. Stating his realization that religion plays a crucial role in the life of one in the military, Leon discusses a soldiers' innate understanding of the finite essence of life. He opined that, "the Lord is the only helping hand to the assurance of living a Christian life, or dying a Christian death," and confessed that he was one of those who did not realize the necessity of religion until he joined the service. (19) The letter closed with requests that the Reverend and the members of the Church pray for him; to bid Mrs. Nash hello, and to ask the young Jesse Nash to write as soon as possible. In this letter, as so many letters to the Reverend Nash would, Leon imparted his experiences on the spiritual level, desired to be remembered to his community in Buffalo, and solicited the one thing that every soldier hungers for in the loneliness of war--letters from home.
On June 14th, 1943, in a typed letter, Reverend Nash wrote to Private Leon Wilcox:
My Dear Leon, Your very fine letter came to me just today. And I made up my mind that I would not sleep until I had answered it. First of all let me thank you for sharing with me and the Church the joy that has come to you in the elevation of your Brother Calvin to second Lieut. Like you, we all are very proud of him and his achievement. A very noble brother indeed are you. Then you have been very thoughtful in revealing to us something of your camp life, especially the religious part of it. I am very glad and pleased to know that you are a careful observer and get impressions that will help you to give proper counsel to your fellow comrades. And I hope you may do your best to make them understand the course they should pursue.... As I think you understand I have not been very well for a long time. So we had to postpone our baptism in May. But if I continue to improve we hope to baptize 12 or 15 the 3rd Sunday in July.... Continue to be a good soldier in the army of your government and in the army of your Lord. Write when you can. God bless and keep you and make you strong in body mind and spirit. I am as ever devotedly your Pastor, J. Edward Nash (20)
On June 16th, 1943, Private Leon Wilcox sent out a hurried letter to Reverend Nash. A request of the utmost importance needed Reverend Nash's reply as quickly as possible! Private Wilcox requested a letter of recommendation from Reverend Nash for entrance into the Army Air Corps' Cadet School. Alerting Reverend Nash to his dream that he may someday fly, Leon made the urgency of the recommendation known. Compelling Nash to provide in his time of need, Leon exhorted, "I know you won't fail me for I feel in my heart that God through you is behind me. Now the future of my success and happiness depends upon you." (21)
As the pastor of the Michigan Street Baptist Church, and as a man who made every effort for the benefit of his community, Private Wilcox's demanded Nash's immediate action. So it was, that only a few short days later, Rev. Nash sent out a letter of recommendation for Private Leon Wilcox, extolling the young soldiers' virtues as a longtime member of the Michigan Street Baptist Church. Rev. Nash imparted that he performed the marriage of Leon's mother and father, and revealed that he had known Leon all his life, performed his Baptism, and had borne witness to his maturity. Rev. Nash also alluded to Private Wilcox's career as an athlete and excellent football player while in high school. (22) With this letter, Rev. Nash provided what service he could to benefit a member of his community in an armed service in which the chances for African-American soldiers to ascend the rungs of opportunity were few. Rev. Nash repeated this favor in similar fashion for other soldiers throughout the war. (23)
The letters of many of the young African-American soldiers from Buffalo offered insight not only into the lives of the individual soldier, but also the actions undertaken by the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church to cope with the tumult of the time. Numerous letters divulged the ongoing activity of the church to provide support and guidance for its community overseas. The letters between Staff Sergeant William Gregory and Rev. Nash begin this illumination.
The papers of Rev. Nash show correspondence between the Reverend and William Gregory as having begun in 1942, and continuing until 1944. The letters show a progression of rank for the young soldier beginning with Private in 1942, to Corporal in 1943, and ending with Staff Sergeant in 1944. The relatively small number of letters between the two men build a picture of the efforts of the Church community to tend to the needs of its members in the armed services.
In a letter from Rev. Nash to Private William Gregory in October of 1942 the Pastor related some of the efforts of the church community in support of the young soldiers. Rev. Nash wrote, "We have a [committee] in our church, of which Mrs. Emma Williams of 86 Alexander Place, to keep in touch with our Boys. And we had her read your letter on Sunday morning." (24) The Pastor went on to let Private Gregory know that, "We have a roll in the vestibule of our church upon which the names of all our Boys who are in the army are placed." (25) The formation of the committee headed by Mrs. Williams, and the creation of the of the soldiers honor roll in the church vestibule, would continue to operate throughout the years of the war. (26)
In a later letter, after having explained to the Reverend why he had not written sooner, the now Corporal William Gregory alluded to numerous letter he received from church members, and friends, regarding the photographs he had sent home to be displayed on the honor roll. The emotion caused by the photographs in the church vestibule sparked requests for pictures to be sent to church members individually. As he did not possess enough pictures to satisfy the requests, the Corporal sent more photographs to Nash to be posted on the honor roll as before. (27) The honor roll of soldiers had obviously struck a chord of pride in the church community, whose young sons were far from their homes.
It was the role of the church committee, headed by Mrs. Emma Williams, to see to the needs of the boys serving in the military. Mrs. Williams made sure that the boys were sent treats from home such as cookies, saw to it that their letters were read to the congregation, and made sure that the photographs they sent were added to the honor roll. (28) To open a box of homemade cookies gave comfort to many a young soldier, as well as his fellow comrades, who were "drooling in anticipation." (29) The committee headed by Mrs. Williams arranged entertainment and socials for members of the church in Buffalo in order to raise money to continue its work of sending cookies, bibles and other gifts to the boys. (30)
In the same letter that Rev. Nash discusses the role of the church committee, he alluded to the good economic situation the community was enjoying. He stated, "Every thing here in Buffalo, in the church and out of the church moves on in quite a satisfactory way. Every body has plenty of work and is making good money." The economic activity related to the war had helped to bring the country out of the economic depression of the 1930's, and Buffalo was a beneficiary of this boom. The steel industry in Buffalo had grown tremendously, due to insatiable demand, in the years leading up to, and including, the war. Although opportunities for employment for the African American population in the city increased dramatically, in the steel plants of Buffalo black worker were generally relegated to the lowest unskilled labor. (31)
Reverend Nash's correspondence with Corporal Alan Howard, a high-speed radio operator attached to an anti-aircraft division, mentioned the special church services that were organized especially for the soldiers from the church. In a typed letter to then Private Howard, Nash stated, "... We have decided to have a service specifically for the boys every second [Sunday] ..." (32)
At the services for the soldiers, Reverend Nash urged the congregation to contemplate the young boys from the community who were serving in the war. The services were not, however, simple honorary services. The status of the African-American community, as second class citizens in their own country and in the armed forces, warranted a more complex discourse on this matter. The Reverend Nash, known for his powerful sermons, dealt honestly with the issue. In a sermon given at one of the honorary services Reverend Nash orated:
For every body these are dark days. These are days when many hearts are heavy and filled with fear and trembling; and many hearts are filled with anxiety, sadness and sorrow ... Nations will never beat their swords into [ploughshares] and their spears into pruning hooks until God is given a place and a larger role in their councils. Your nation will continue to learn war so long as you have your military schools ... (33)
In his letters to Reverend Nash, Private First Class Harry Dover commented on the Reverend's son Jesse becoming interested in joining the service. Private Dover prodded Rev. Nash to advise his son against joining the armed services. Describing his experience, and suggesting that Jesse continue his college education, Dover wrote to Reverend Nash in 1943:
It's none of my business Rev. Nash, but if I were you I would try to discourage your son's ambition to get in the armed forces. It's a hard life at best and particularly in a young boy whose character has not been subjected to the evils of gambling, swearing, drinking, and lewd women, such as you come in contact with in any branch of the service. To continue his college degree means a great deal in both civilian life and the services. (34)
In a postcard to Reverend Nash later that same year, Private Dover again attempted to impress upon Nash his opinion that Jesse should not enlist in the service. Suggesting that he should not rush matters in a war in which there was a draft, Dover noted that there would be plenty of opportunities in the services for the young boy if he were drafted. Dover stated, "I pray it will be over before that time." (35) The milieu of the era had generated a persistent urge within the young Jesse Nash to join the battle against Axis aggression.
In a letter written to Reverend Nash on Thanksgiving Day 1943, Private Harry Dover reflected upon the many things he felt grateful for--good parents, friendship such as that with Rev. Nash. Most of all, the young Private told Reverend Nash, he felt thankful that he had not yet had to kill, or injure, another human being, despite having been taught in the service to view those he was fighting as enemies. Reflecting his Baptist upbringing, of which Reverend Nash had been the guide, Dover reflected, "I do not hate the Germans, the Italians, or the Japanese. If our cause is just, God will not let them prevail." (36) Private Dover's reflections mirror the sentiments expressed in the National Baptist Convention of 1942, at which the war was a topic of great concern. The convention supported involvement in the war, but felt that Christians must recruit soldiers into the Lord's army in order to arrive at an eternal victory for justice, a sentiment often included in Rev. Nash's wartime letters. (37)
Removed from their church, their friends, and the African-American community of Buffalo, the young soldiers were always hungry for information. The burgeoning African-American press throughout the United States, and in Buffalo, offered the black community the opportunity to define itself through its own media, while at the same time building community, educating its readers, and promoting black business and culture. The armed forces did not supply its black soldiers with this link to their communities at home, a link which they desired to maintain. Feeling this disconnect from the news of the community at home, Private Oscar Hall wrote Reverend Nash to request that he send "the Buffalo Star or any colored paper that is printed in Buffalo". (38)
Reverend Nash took this request seriously, perhaps assuming the other young soldiers from the Michigan Street Baptist Church would desire the same. As the Pastor of a church with deep roots in the community, Rev. Nash did not have far to turn for a solution. Nash coordinated with a Mr. Smitherman, of the Buffalo Star, to have the paper sent to all the members of the church serving in the armed services. In a letter to Private Hall regarding his request for any black newspaper to be sent him, Rev. Nash informed the Private of the arrangements for the Buffalo Star to be shipped to the soldiers and stated, "It is very likely [t]hat you will get next week's issue". (39)
The position of high regard enjoyed by the Reverend J. Edward Nash in the African American community of Buffalo made him a natural target for the homesick letters of the young black soldiers of the Michigan Street Baptist Church serving in World War II. The Reverend Nash did not take this admiration and want of communication for granted. He embraced the letters of each young soldier as if they had been the letters of his very own son, reading each one with delight and wonder, and responding with haste and care. Rev. Nash seemed to possess an innate sense that the sacrifice being made by the soldiers of his congregation would surely not be in vain, that their efforts would bring some measure of good. The letters of correspondence between Nash and the soldiers illuminate many of the struggles the soldiers experienced, and the love and dedication with which the Reverend J. Edward Nash responded.
Listing of soldiers with whom Rev. Nash corresponded during WWII
Farmer, Corporal Leroy P.
Gregrory, Corporal William
Hall Jr., Corporal Oscar
Presley, David Lee
Howard, Private Allan
Wilcox, Private First Class Leon
Wilcox, Private William
Dover, Private Harry
Johnstone Jr., Private William
Womack, Corporal James
Martin, Corporal Harold
Christopher, Private Rufus
Dyes, Corporal Ulysses
Williams, Private Luther M.
Groves, Earl W.
Steger, Corporal Joseph
Colley, Private First Class
Sessum, James O.
(2) Microfilmed J. Edward Nash Papers, Buffalo State College Regional History Collection, Butler Library Archives, Buffalo, NY. Microfilmed by the Buffalo State College Monroe Fordham Regional History Center (hereafter referred to as the J. Edward Nash Papers)--letter from Reverend J. Edward Nash to Corporal William Wilcox, dated July 25th, 1945.
(3) For a complete history of the Michigan Street Baptist Church and its' integral role in the local African-American community of Buffalo, New York, refer to: Fordham, Monroe. "Origins of the Michigan Street Baptist Church Buffalo, New York," Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. January 1997. vol. 21 (1). pg. 7.
(4) Fordham, "Origins of the Michigan Street Baptist Church," pg. 9.
(5) Ibid., pg. 11.
(6) Ibid., pg. 13.
(7) Ibid., pg. 13.
(8) The J. Edward Nash Papers provide source material on the Michigan Street Baptist Church and its involvement in the community, political struggles, and economic struggles throughout the years of tenure of Reverend Nash.
(9) The Wayland Seminary and College later became the Virginia Union University.
(10) J. Edward Nash Papers, folder 26--personal history written by Rev. J. Edward Nash.
(11) National Register of Historic Places Inventory--Nomination Form, for Michigan Street Baptist Church, as quoted in Fordham, "Origins of the Michigan Street Baptist Church."
(12) For correspondence between Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and J. Edward Nash, see the J. Edward Nash Papers, various folders.
(13) National Register of Historic Places Inventory as quoted in Fordham, "Origins of the Michigan Street Baptist Church."
(14) The earliest letter to a WWII soldier in the J. Edward Nash Papers is a letter from Rev. Nash to Leroy P. Farmer, dated December 18th, 1941.
(15) For a complete record of the soldiers with whom Reverend Nash corresponded during World War II, refer to appendix I.
(16) The relationship of Leon, William, and Calvin as brothers is mentioned in the J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 112, letter from Reverend J. Edward Nash to William Wilcox, dated April 8th, 1943.
(17) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 111, postcard from Private Leon Wilcox to Reverend J. Edward Nash, postmarked April 10th, 1943, 5:30 P.M., Youngstown, N.Y.
(18) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 111, letter from Leon Wilcox to Reverend Nash, dated May 15, 1943.
(19) Ibid. -- folder 111, letter from Leon Wilcox to Reverend Nash, dated May 15, 1943, second page.
(20) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 112, Letter from Reverend J. Edward Nash to Leon Wilcox, dated June 14th, 1943. For a complete version of this letter refer to the Nash papers.
(21) Ibid. -- folder 111, letter from Leon Wilcox to Reverend J. Edward Nash, dated June 16th, 1943.
(22) Ibid. -- folder 12, letter from J. Edward Nash to "to whom it may concern", dated June 21st, 1943.
(23) Letters of recommendation for other soldiers can be found in the J. Edward Nash Papers, various folders of correspondence from 1942-1945.
(24) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 112, letter from Reverend J. Edward Nash to Private William Gregory, dated October 28th, 1942, 3rd paragraph.
(25) Ibid. -- folder 112, letter from Reverend J. Edward Nash to Private William Gregory, dated October 28th, 1942, 4th paragraph
(26) Letters to, and from, soldiers throughout the years of 1942-1945 make mention of the committee, of Mrs. Emma Williams role, and of the honor roll in the church vestibule. See the J. Edward Nash Papers, various folders of correspondence between 1942 and 1945.
(27) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 111, letter from Corporal Bill Gregory to the Reverend J. Edward Nash, dated Sunday, April 11, 1943.
(28) The cookies sent to soldiers by Mrs. Emma Williams and the committee are mentioned in numerous letters between 1942 and 1945 in the Nash Papers.
(29) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 113, letter from Harry B. Dover to Reverend J. Edward Nash, dated October 18, 1944, first page.
(30) Ibid. -- folder 112, letter from Reverend J. Edward Nash to Private Oscar Hall, dated September 2nd, 1943.
(31) Bilotta, James D. "Reflections of an African-American on his Life in the Greater Buffalo Area, 1930's-1960's," Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. July 1989. vol. 13(2). pg. 47.
(32) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 112, letter from Reverend J. Edward Nash to Private Alan Howard, dated July 26th, 1943.
(33) For a complete transcript of this sermon see the J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 385, sermon dated July 11th, 1943.
(34) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 111, letter from Private Harry Dover to Reverend J. Edward Nash, dated March 28th, 1943.
(35) Ibid. -- folder 111, postcard from Private Harry Dover to Reverend J. Edward Nash, dated August 20th, 1943.
(36) Ibid. -- folder 111, letter from Private Harry Dover to Reverend J. Edward Nash, dated November 25th, 1943.
(37) Martin, Sandy. "African-American Baptists and World War II." Baptist History and Heritage. Summer-Fall 2001. vol. 36 (3). pg. 92.
(38) J. Edward Nash Papers -- folder 111, letter from Private Oscar Hall to Reverend J. Edward Nash, dated August 3rd, 1943.
(39) Ibid. -- folder 112, letter from Reverend J. Edward Nash to Private Oscar Hall, dated September 2nd 1943
Gabriel Smith (1)
(1) Gabriel Smith was an undergraduate student in the Department of History and Social Studies at Buffalo State College. This paper grew out of the department's Senior Seminar in History.
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|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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