The Florence County Museum has recently replaced one of its large exterior banners with a striking image of an African American man in World War I military uniform.
The image is of Florence County native, Sgt. James H. Spears, from a photograph currently on exhibit in the museum’s Pee Dee History Gallery. The banner, on the front of the museum’s eastern wing, was installed last week, in honor of Memorial Day.
James Holloway Spears was born in 1892, in the Claussen community of Florence County, southeast of the Florence city limits. He was 25 at the time of his enlistment.*
The military was segregated during WWI, and Companies were very often organized based on geography. Like many other men from Florence County, Spears trained at Camp Jackson, Columbia.
Many historians are familiar with the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 92nd Division in the segregated American military during World War I. Perhaps lesser known are the soldiers of the 93rd Division, to which Spears was assigned.
Spears was part of the 93rd Division’s 371st Infantry Regiment, Company F. “According to official records, Spears rose fairly quickly in the ranks. He was promoted to the rank of Corporal less than one month after his arrival at Camp Jackson, and again promoted to Sergeant less than one month before his arrival in France.” says museum Curator, Stephen W. Motte.
In the spring of 1918, the 371st Regiment was fatefully assigned to serve as a “detached” unit of the American Expeditionary Force under the command of the French Army. Many of the men of the 93rd Division adopted the “Red Hand” insignia and patch of the 157th French infantry, with whom they soon saw combat.**
“Sergeant Spears was one of few who fought alongside the French against the Germans on the Western Front in France,” Motte said. He participated in the fierce battles at Séchault, Ardeuil & Montfauxelle, from September 28 to October 6. He survived the war. However, seven members of his Company did not.
On November 11, 1918, just five weeks after the engagements at Séchault, the Armistice drew hostilities on the Western Front to a close. Sergeant Spears remained attached to the command of the French Army until the following February. He received an honorable discharge on August 26, 1919.
After Spears returned to Florence he started a neighborhood drill team, and became involved in several community youth volunteer programs. He was Scout Master of one of Florence’s earliest African American Boy Scout troops, and director of the youth choir at Cumberland United Methodist Church. Spears worked for the United States Postal Service for 26 years, until his retirement in 1955. He married Ms. Louise Jenkins and lived on East Kershaw St. with their three children until his death in 1956.
The original photograph on exhibit is on loan from the family of James H. Spears, Jr. It was encountered by the museum accidentally in 2013, during an interview with Mr. Spears related to a completely different topic.
“It was the first photograph of an African American WWI veteran that I had ever seen,” Motte said. “I recognized very quickly that it represented a rare opportunity to educate museum visitors about this little-known aspect of Florence County’s history.”
I had hoped that Mr. Spears could come to the museum to see his father’s portrait hanging in front of the building,” Motte said. “Sadly, James “Junior” Spears passed away about a month ago.”
Twenty-five enlisted African Americans from Florence County died in service during World War I. Of those 25, only one died of wounds received in actual combat. His name was Livingston E. Harrell.
Livingston Harrell was born in Cartersville, Florence County, between Florence and Timmonsville. He was 28 years old at the time of his enlistment. Like Sgt. James Spears, he served in Company F of the 371st Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, and fought alongside the French army in the summer and fall of 1918.
Harrell was killed in action September 30, 1918, during the offensive against German forces in the battles which had consumed the countryside of Séchault. He was one of seven in his Company who lost their lives.
The names of Pvt. Harrell and those men of the 371st who died alongside him are inscribed on a monument between the towns of Séchault and Ardeuil, near the still-visible trenches of the battlefield on which they fought. His name is obscured by damage from German artillery shells which scarred the monument in June 1940, at the onset of WWII.
Another African American veteran of the 371st from South Carolina holds an important distinction in United States history. Corporal Freddie Stowers (1896 – 1918), of Anderson County, was the first African American veteran of WWI to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor, for his valor in combat during the offensive at Ardeuil-et-Montfauxelles. The award was given posthumously; Stowers died on the battlefield, September 28, 1918.
On Wednesday evening, May 30, 1928, a new World War I monument was unveiled in Florence. The monument was an impressively large three-piece marble drinking fountain, displayed on the southeast grounds of the public library.
Upon the center section of the fountain, facing east, was mounted a bronze plaque which read:
The inscription was followed by a segregated list naming the 67 Florence County veterans who died during the war; 42 “white” and 25 “colored” officers and enlisted men.
This pennant and postcard both feature images of the fountain, attesting to its prominent and patriotic status as a local landmark in the years before the Second World War.
In 2015, plans were made for the monument’s restoration and relocation from its previous setting on the north of the Fred H. Sexton American Legion Post No. 1 club house grounds, where it had been located since around 1939.
The Florence WWI Memorial fountain was rededicated at the Florence Veterans Park on Veterans Day, November 11, 2016, the 98th anniversary of Armistice Day, accompanied by a new desegregated plaque.