Author: Hannah E. Johnson
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True and literal meaning is leant to the phrase “brothers in arms” by Lincoln Bynum and his older brother Edward, who served in France as fellow soldiers of Company K of the all-black 370th United States Infantry during World War I—the only unit to be commanded entirely by black officers. Segregated units were often led by white officers. Both brothers saw battle from the trenches, but lived to return home to Bloomington at the end of the war.
Lincoln J. Bynum was born on January 22, 1900 in Bloomington, IL. He was one of eight children born to Edward Wesley and Mary (Smith) Bynum.
Though Bynum’s father Edward W. served as a cook in Company G of the Eighth Illinois Regiment, Illinois National Guard, when Lincoln was a child, the Bynums’ was not a military household. However, little is known about Lincoln or his brothers prior to his and Edward’s registration for the draft in June 1917. The Bynum family moved within the city fairly regularly while Lincoln was growing up. From 1895 to 1917, Bynum’s family lived at no less than seven separate addresses in Bloomington. Bynum’s father, Edward Sr., was employed as a waiter or a janitor in a variety of places. He worked as a janitor at City Hall when his two sons were sent overseas.
At the time of his enlistment, Lincoln (or Link as he was known to some) was employed at the Illinois Hotel on Jefferson Street in Bloomington. Unlike his brother Edward who found fairly consistent work as a porter before and after the war, Lincoln worked at a wide number of jobs over the years: including janitor (Illinois Hotel, the Pantagraph, Steak ‘n Shake, Clay Dooley, etc.), jobber, car washer, shoe shiner, and police automobile driver.
War had been waging in Europe since July 1914, but on April 6, 1917, Congress effectively abandoned the United States’ policy of neutrality by declaring war on Germany. The country was ill equipped to furnish an army large enough to fight a war overseas. In order to raise any army, Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1917 in May of that year, which enabled the federal government to order young men into the Army and Navy. Bynum, being a man aged 21 to 30, registered in June and was mobilized as a member of the segregated Chicago-based Eighth Illinois Regiment, Illinois National Guard, in July.
On July 27, 1917, the cars of the 6 p.m. interurban bound for Peoria were loaded with the recently mobilized men of the Eighth. As the Pantagraph noted, with only a few hours notice of their mobilization, the 68 men were not a “very soldierly looking congregation,” but were “full of life and the spirit of adventure.” Mostly composed of men from Bloomington, the regiment also received men from Pontiac, Clinton, and elsewhere to satisfy the immediate need for soldiers. Two special cars had been prepared to transport the troops, who boarded the train prior to it pulling into the Bloomington station. The cars only lingered in the station for a few minutes, just long enough for friends and family to shout farewells from the platform and for the soldiers inside to stick their heads, hands, and sometimes “the greater part of their bodies,” outside the windows to shake hands, shared kisses, and yell their own final goodbyes to those who had gathered to see them off. After arriving in Peoria, the men trained for roughly ten weeks before being sent to the newly constructed Camp Logan in Houston, Texas.
Tensions were high in Houston when the Eighth arrived at Camp Logan on October 12. Back in July, members of the all-black Twenty-Fourth United States Infantry Regiment had been ordered to guard the construction site of the new camp. In the eyes of the local residents and law enforcement, however, the arrival of the armed Twenty-Fourth in the then-segregated city was less than welcome. Hostilities intensified when a rumor that a black solider had been killed by white police officers incited a riot between white civilians living in the city and 156 black soldiers stationed there. Four black soldiers and sixteen white civilians were killed during the riot. All 156 soldiers were court-martialed, nineteen of whom were executed. As a result of the incident, animosity against blacks was palpable at the time the Eighth arrived.
After an almost five-month stay in Texas, the unit left for Newport News, Virginia in March 1918, and from there arrived in France on April 22, 1918—whereupon the unit’s arrival, the Eighth was re-designated 370th Infantry Regiment of the segregated 93rd Infantry Division. Like the Eighth, the 370th had the distinction of being the only regiment in the U.S. Army that was led entirely by black officers. Seven days after their arrival in France, Bynum and his fellow members of the 370th began training with French soldiers in Drandvillars. In contrast to the majority of African American units that were relegated to support positions, members of the 370th saw combat. According to an account relayed by Sergeant Major James L. Page, the regiment was “with the best division of the French army during this time.” First Sergeant Eugene De Forest Love had “good word[s] for the French people and their cordial treatment of the colored troops,” implying that “not anything is banned to them that belongs to France.”
In his writing on the subject, renowned author W.E.B. Du Bois comments on the clear racist motivations of white American soldiers in their treatment of their fellow black soldiers and the desire to remove black soldiers from the influence of the French as soon as possible. There were active attempts on the part of the American military to discredit the efforts of the black soldiers fighting abroad. As Du Bois quotes from a conversation he overheard between three American soldiers and two French soldiers, one of the American officers suggested that “they had no use for ‘n*****s’ in the United States, and were only trying them out in the war.” According to the officer, “they had proved themselves a bunch of cowards, and that every one of the ---------- would rape a white woman if he was not held down by the whites.” In contrast, the French officers had “nothing but the highest of praise for their black soldiers…and the work that they had done.”
After roughly six weeks of training under the tutelage of the French Army, on June 23 the unit was sent into the trenches near Regonville, where they remained for one week before relocating to the trenches at Vraincourt. After ten days, on August 16, the unit left for the front at Verdun and were back in the trenches by September 14. For two weeks, the unit was subjected to heavy shelling and gas attacks.
Trench warfare was the dominant method of fighting during WWI. Typical trenches were designed in a system of two to four parallel lines, each line approximately one mile to the rear of the front or next line. All trenches were dug in a zig-zag pattern to prevent enemy fire from traveling more than a few yards down the trench if the shooter was standing at the end. Each main line trench was connected by perpendicular communication trenches, through which information and supplies were exchanged. Trenches were often reinforced with sandbags and topped with coils of barbed wire, and lined with wooden planks at the bottom. Enemy trenches were usually located anywhere between fifty and 250 yards apart, separated by what was often referred to as “no man’s land.” This “no man’s land” belonged to neither side, was open to frequent artillery barrages, and was the site of many deaths. The trenches were cramped, muddy, and often times filled with water. Machine gunfire, mortar, and gas attacks were all commonplace.
Lincoln was once described by his older brother Edward as a “card,” as he recalled a time when one night while stationed in France, German airplanes were “trying to locate us and were dropping bombs all around us.” Some of the men began to retreat to the trenches when Lincoln said, “What is the matter with you guys? If you are scared you ought to join the church.”
As exemplified by Lincoln’s attitude in combat, the men of the 370th were referred to by the French as “Partridges” for their cockiness and pride in battle. But among enemy German soldiers, the men of the 370th earned an even more serious moniker—the “Black Devils.” Though speaking to the unit’s courage and ferocity, this loaded term speaks also to the larger situation black American soldiers found themselves in, well into the twentieth century. Until 1948, when President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, black soldiers were only allowed to serve in all-black units. Though these men could be ordered to mobilize and serve on behalf of their nation in a world-encompassing conflict the likes of which was then unknown, the same men could not fight for their country alongside their white comrades-in-arms. As is known, such instances of racial inequality were not relegated to the front lines, and continued to color the experience of blacks—Bynum included—in America throughout the twentieth century and beyond. On December 23, 1942, Bynum wrote a letter to the editor of the Pantagraph, titled “Negroes Forgotten,” with the intent to bring the readership’s attention to recent Associated Press reports published on the loss of life in a Boston fire, and the inverse absence of any such reporting on a fire in Natchez, Mississippi two years previously in which more than 200 people perished. Bynum went on to ask, “Could it be that where Negroes are the victims, no record of a disaster is kept by the Associated Press?” In Bynum’s words:
“It is the small things like this, often repeated, that make the colored people of this country feel that they are the forgotten part of this democracy, to be considered only when some dire calamity threatens its existence, and even then the remembrance is one of studied reluctance.”
When the war ended on November 11, 1918—203 days after Bynum and his unit arrived in France—the 370th was still in pursuit of the Germans, having pushed them back to the Belgian border. For their distinguished service, many men in the 370th received medals and awards from both the French and American governments. All totaled, the unit received almost 100 medals including twenty-one American Distinguished Service Crosses, several Croix de Guerre (France’s highest honor), sixty-eight French War Crosses, and one French Distinguished Service Medal. Many of those men who were decorated for their service gave their lives as well. Twenty percent, or ninety-six men total, were killed in the 370th.
Though the armistice was signed in November 1918, return to normalcy was nowhere near immediate. For Lincoln and the 370th, life continued abroad until February. During this time, however, France tried to make its appreciation known. Prior to the unit’s departure, French General Vincedon issued a statement commending the 370th for their bravery and commitment to the cause which stated that “the blood of your comrade’s fell on the soil of France mixed with the blood of our soldiers, renders indissoluble the bonds of affection that unite us. We have besides, the pride of having worked together at a magnificent task, the pride of bearing on our foreheads the ray of a common grandeur.” The unit landed in New York on February 9.
According to the Pantagraph, no floors or windows at City Hall could have been dirty enough to keep Edward W. Sr. from meeting his sons. On February 17 the men of the 370th arrived in Chicago, after returning to the states from France by way of New York City. More so than “pride of race and color,” Edward Sr. was motivated by a longing for his sons to be home. After finding his sons in the crowd, the trio shared a two-hour visit before being treated to the “dazzling” welcome the city of Chicago had planned for the nation’s “crack negro regiment.” The large crowds prevented any dancing to be done at a reception at the Chicago Coliseum, but members of the 370th paraded through the streets before returning to Camp Grant near Rockford, IL where the regiment officially mustered out on February 24.
The return of the members of Machine Gun Company 3 (of which Edward was a member) of the 370th to Bloomington on February 27, 1919 marked the largest single body of returning soldiers of one unit from Europe to Bloomington. To celebrate the occasion, the Association of Commerce prepared an evening program complete with a parade downtown, a banquet at the Wayman A.M.E. Church, and a public program at the Bloomington Coliseum, which began with a series of speeches from public officials and concluded with dancing until midnight. Mayor E.E. Jones delivered a welcome, followed by a response from the Adelbert H. Roberts, a state representative from Chicago, who in 1924 became the first black state senator in Illinois. In line with the Pantagraph’s urging that it was “the duty of the Bloomington people to join in this celebration and give these heroes a welcome,” Roberts stated that he was glad to see the “best white people join the best black people of the city in a welcome for these ‘Black Devils,’” for a “government that is great and grand enough to carry democracy over the seas ... is great enough to spread it to the colored race at home.” Roberts went on to encourage greater cooperation between white and black citizens, suggesting that the “accomplishments of his race in the war will do much to bring it about.”In addition to the mayor and Roberts, speakers included Dr. Eugene Covington, a local black physician; Bloomington attorney and Jewish civil rights leader Sigmund Livingston; and Wayman minister Henry Simons. Edward Sr., the Bynums’ father, served on the speakers committee for the event.
Despite the warm welcome home and the optimistic sentiments of people such as Roberts, black U.S. soldiers returned to a society still predicated on prejudice and discrimination. The extent of their service was largely undervalued in comparison to the efforts of their white counterparts—so much so that black ex-servicemen were barred from joining “white” veteran organizations such as the local Louis E. Davis Post 56 of the American Legion in Bloomington, founded in June 1919. As a result, twenty-two men—including Bynum’s brother Edward—gathered on February 18, 1920 at the club of the Louis E. Davis Post at 309½ Main Street in Bloomington to organize their own colored American Legion post—so named the Stevenson-Lewis Post after two of their fallen comrades, David Stevenson and Harry Lewis. Stevenson, a former sergeant in the 370th was killed by shell fire on the Verdun front as the unit advanced toward the Belgian border. Lewis, on the other hand, never made it to the front, as he died of double pneumonia prior to the unit being sent to Texas for training. The post was to be “known in the future as an organization of colored civilians who served the country during the great war.” Almost exactly three years later, Lincoln helped his brother repeat this process with a slightly expanded group of men, who possessed similar intentions.
On February 5, 1923, more than thirty black veterans (including Bynum) gathered at the Griesheim Building in downtown Bloomington to organize the colored American Legion post, Redd-Williams Post 163—named for John Redd and Gus Williams, two other fellow veterans who perished during the First World War. Williams, like Stevenson, was killed on the frontlines at Verdun. Redd was seriously wounded in battle, but died later from his injuries. The Ladies’ Auxiliary to the post was launched one year later in 1924. Bynum’s mother Mary was elected president and Bynum’s sister-in-law Bessie (Thompson) served as secretary. Bynum’s brother Edward served as post-sergeant-at-arms, vice commander, and commander during his time with the post. Over the years, Lincoln served as historian, and on the employment and finance committees for the post.
For most of its history, the Redd-Williams post was without a permanent facility for its members. The post did meet regularly in the basement of the McBarnes Memorial Building on Grove Street in Bloomington, the permanent address of the Louis E. Davis post, until fire damaged the building in September 1972. Following the fire, the McLean County Board accepted the Davis post’s sale of its leasehold interest in the building for $94,000 (roughly $540,000 in 2016 dollars)—with the agreement that the post provide space at its future headquarters for other veterans’ organizations in the county. More than a year later, members of the still homeless Redd-Williams post complained that the post had received no money from the sale of the lease, accusing the Davis post of breaking its promise to provide funds for a new location. Members of the Davis post responded to the accusations, saying that no promise had been made regarding a payout and that such a decision would have to be submitted to the post’s board. Claims circulated that offerings of $1,000 to $3,000 (less than $5,000 to $15,000 in 2016 dollars) had been made by the Davis post to Redd-Williams, and that the latter had either rejected the offers or countered with figures closer to $20,000 (or close to $100,000 in 2016 dollars). The concern on the part of the Redd-Williams post was that the post had already begun preparations to secure a permanent location on Main Street with the knowledge that some funding would be coming from the Davis post. Though the Redd-Williams Post never saw payment from the sale of the lease of the McBarnes building, in January 1975 the Davis post offered the members Redd-Williams temporary use of a room at their new permanent location at 108 E. Market Street in Bloomington and contributed $500 to the Redd-Williams’ fund drive for a permanent location of their own.
On July 1, 1976, members of the Redd-Williams Post 163 opened their new headquarters at 529 N. Main Street in Bloomington—the former S&H Green Stamp Store. However, after suffering recent drops in membership, the Redd-Williams Post disbanded three years later in 1979. Afterwards some black veterans joined the then-integrated Carl S. Martin American Legion Post 635—founded in Normal in 1928 expressly as an alternative to the Louis E. Davis Post.
Apart from the post and their common military experience, Lincoln and Edward, as well as their brother Eugene, shared an aptitude for athletics—particularly basketball. While stationed at Camp Logan in Houston before leaving for France, the Pantagraph reported that both Edward and Lincoln had made a “great hit in the athletic work that the army [was] producing,”—in this case, referring to the brothers’ contributions to the army basketball league. At the time of the article, the Bynums and their fellow players had won twenty-two straight games. After the war, Lincoln offered his skills as a guard and coach to the Bloomington Buffaloes—a local all-black basketball team managed by his brother Edward.
As the Buffaloes played both black and white teams, it is not surprising that the team—Lincoln included—found themselves playing defense off the court at least once. On Tuesday, December 19, 1922, the Bloomington Buffaloes defeated the San Jose Triple A’s 29 to 11 on the court of the Bloomington High School gymnasium. In preparation for the game, the Pantagraph reported that “the visitors are represented with some of the fastest basketball players in semi-pro circles and the locals will be forced to travel at a fast pace to register a win with them.” Five days later, on December 24, the Pantagraph reported that San Jose would refuse to meet the Buffaloes in any further matches due to their failure to appear at their last scheduled game on Thursday, December 21. The paper reported that a large crowd had assembled for the game and was disappointed by the unexplained cancellation. In response, the Buffaloes published a statement on December 27 that stated that there was “good reason” for cancelling the game as the team had received threats following their win on December 19 that the defeated Triple A’s were planning to have the Buffaloes “beaten up” and “chased out of town.” On December 30, San Jose issued their own statement defending the character of the town, saying, “No visiting team at San Jose has received anything but the most courteous treatment from players and public. The games are played in the First M.E. church gymnasium. No rough tactics are allowed.” The statement went on to claim that contact had been made with Manager Bynum by phone prior to the game, and that he had stated the team had left for San Jose around 4:30 p.m. that afternoon. After the team failed to appear, several more calls were made to Bynum with no reply. The Pantagraph last reported on the story on December 29, writing that San Jose was “indignant” over the charges made by the Buffaloes and were “willing to meet the colored boys on [a] neutral floor.” Though Lincoln’s basketball career never went beyond the Bloomington Buffaloes, his later career did intersect at least once with a former teammate—Eli White.
In August 1932, Bynum was appointed automobile driver for the Bloomington police. As a driver, Bynum was at times involved in police action—including being one of three responders to a rally protesting the suspension of relief efforts on the part of the Bloomington Civic Relief Committee due to budgetary concerns in August 1932. In this way, Bynum was not unlike his father. In May 1917, Bynum’s father Edward W. Sr., was credited with fourteen arrests while working as a janitor at City Hall. However, on June 2, 1933, the City approved the appointment of Robert Eli White as police auto driver in place of Lincoln. In protest, Lincoln’s brother Edward organized the signing of a petition arguing against White’s appointment for the reason that he had been a resident of Bloomington for less than four years. In a Pantagraph report, Edward accused White of voting the Republican ticket in Normal in the last election, before moving to Bloomington to secure a job under the Democratic administration. Edward went on to specify that White resided on Cypress Street in Normal and had only recently moved to his father’s house on Prairie Street in Bloomington. On June 9, Alderman Harry Marquardt presented the 250-signature strong petition to the city council, after which the city agreed to launch a full investigation into White’s eligibility. On June 30, the Council voted eight to six in favor of White’s appointment to the position of driver.
Despite no longer being employed by the police department, it seems Bynum’s run in with criminals was not limited to his time in law enforcement. In this case, however, Bynum found himself on the victim’s side of the encounter. On August 14, 1939, Bynum, then employed as a janitor at the Main Street location of Steak ‘n Shake in Normal, was ordered to the floor at gunpoint during a shift by two men robbing the establishment. Bynum, the only employee on duty at the time, was unable to provide a detailed description of the assailants, who escaped with $518 in cash from a “secret cache” in the room. Police chief C.Y. Yates believed the robbers had prior knowledge about where the money was stored. Bynum told police that he did not know about the location of the funds.
After a continuing series of odd jobs, Bynum found steady employment in 1962 and finished his varied career as a janitor at Clay Dooley Inc. tire store, located at 216 E. Grove Street, until his retirement in 1975.
If Lincoln’s legacy is to be extended beyond his military service and general employment mishaps, one must look to his marriage to Laura Clark on April 9, 1922 and the birth of their two daughters Madilyn and Bernyce—who between them gave birth to nine children. On May 12, 1945, the Bynums hosted Bernyce’s wedding to Coxswain William M. Gaines of Bloomington at their home on 915 E. Empire Street. Madilyn married Arthur Lewis Garrison on May 15, 1948 in Bloomington. Garrison was the first black plumber on staff at both Illinois State University and University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The couple had four children.
Lincoln Bynum died on July 31, 1977 at the age of 77. He was survived by Laura, his wife of 55 years; his two daughters, Mrs. Madilyn Garrison and Mrs. Bernyce Gaines, both of Detroit, Michigan; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Two brothers (one of them Edward) and, according to his obituary, a third daughter preceded him in death. Lincoln Bynum is buried in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.
Laura survived her husband Lincoln by almost 20 years, dying at the age of 94 on February 25, 1994. At the time of her death, Bynum was residing in Detroit with her daughter Madilyn. Along with Madilyn, Bynum was survived by nine grandchildren, twenty-four great-grandchildren, and nine great-great-grandchildren. The funeral service was held at Wayman A.M.E. Church in Bloomington, of which she was a member. Bynum served as a steward of the church, once organizing a week-long series of lectures and programs held in celebration of “Negro History Week.” Bynum’s son-in-law Arthur served alongside her as an elected trustee. Arthur, being a navy veteran, was also active in the Redd-Williams Post like his father-in-law—serving as both vice-commander and Boy Scout chairman. Laura Bynum is buried next to Lincoln in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.