A Purple Heart, 100 Years Later

Perry James, grandson of World War I veteran Sergeant Perry Lloyd, tells Nathan about his mission to get his grandfather a Purple Heart, what it means to finally realize it and the importance of remembering the service of African-American soldiers in World War I.

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Nathan Connolly: Major funding for Back Story is provided by an anonymous donor, The National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and The Robert and Joseph Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Nathan Connolly: From Virginia Humanities, this is Back Story.

Nathan Connolly: Welcome to Back Story, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.

Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh. If you’re new to the podcast, Nathan, Ed Ayers, Joanne Freeman and I are all historians. Each week we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Nathan Connolly: Today we’re going to start off in Charleston, South Carolina, where a Purple Heart was just awarded to a World War I veteran for his historic service 100 years ago.

Perry James: It was absolutely great. I get kind of emotional, particularly when something that’s near and dear to my heart is undertaken, so I got a little teary-eyed.

Nathan Connolly: That was Perry James, grandson of World War I veteran and Purple Heart winner, Sergeant Perry Lloyd.

Perry James: And after I was finished I wished I’d said that soldiers don’t cry, soldiers don’t cry, but then I realized I was a sailor. And they do cry. But in all seriousness, I tend to take life with the glass half full, and I don’t fault anybody for my grandfather not getting the recognition. I’m grateful to be in the position to do the research and to give back to the community and to receive such a wonderful honor on behalf of my grandfather. And my mother, she was sitting there, she’s 88 years old, her name is Elise James, Elise Lloyd James. And when we first found out about my grandfather’s wound, she had forgotten about it a little bit, and she said, “Yeah, I do remember him saying that he was wounded about the head.” And she said, “Well Perry, I just want you to get me his Purple Heart. And you just really don’t tell Elise Lloyd James no.

Nathan Connolly: That’s what sent you on your mission.

Perry James: Oh, absolutely. I was on my mission. And when we got the actual email I was at her house, got the email that my grandfather had been awarded the purple heart, you could have thought we won that one billion dollar lottery that’s out there.

Nathan Connolly: Wow. Now you ended up going to France to retrace your grandfather’s steps.

Perry James: Absolutely.

Nathan Connolly: What was that like?

Perry James: Oh, there’s a big smile that comes on my face every time I think about it. I’m thanking all the lucky stars that I had this opportunity to go over, because it afforded me a chance to actually go to the site in France where my grandfather had been wounded a hundred years to the day.

Nathan Connolly: Wow.

Perry James: So if you can imagine being out on a tall hill surrounded by vast amounts of land, and look at a monument there that is dedicated to the African American soldiers that lost their lives, and to look at that moment and see the name of a gentleman by the name of William Lang. Before I went over I found out that Mr. Lang grew up actually a half a mile from where I grew up. So there was a real connection to witness the name of someone on the monument, to note that they were killed and to just think that your grandfather’s name could have been on that monument, it is a surreal, real moment.

Nathan Connolly: So I have to ask you. This experience of going all the way to France and finding a monument commemorating the 371st, what do you feel when you see that, especially when you think about the struggle it takes to commemorate African-American veterans in the United States?

Perry James: It’s disappointing and disheartening. Because of my awareness now, particularly of my grandfather and the other men in the 371st colored infantry regiment, it’s a big part of our history that’s missing. And in this world of tension between the races, it’s just a great opportunity to share with other Americans, particularly white Americans who sometimes don’t even know that African Americans fought in the great war, and fought gallantly, and were brave soldiers. So it’s disheartening, however I have to realize that’s the country that I was born in, this is the country that I served in the military of, and a lot of my other family members, you just have to go about and tell as many people as you can. And that’s my mission. In a general conversation I just can’t help but tell somebody, “Hey, do you know that,” or, “Let me tell you that my grandfather was a World War I veteran who earned the Purple Heart, and who made Sergeant in four months.”

Nathan Connolly: As we sit here in 2018-2019 and look back on World War I, what should we remember about the great war, and what do you think we should remember about African American’s role in it in particular?

Perry James: Well, I think part of it is to recognize that the turn of the century was a time when civil rights actually gained a little momentum, because leaders like W.E.B. DuBois and other notable leaders in the African American community were very disappointed that there was not any space in the United States Army for African Americans to go to combat. Traditionally the only thing African American soldiers could do back then was labor intensive jobs, like unload freight cars, cook the meals, dig graves and bury the dead. The African American community at the turn of the century felt that through combat, African American men could show their metal, they could show their dedication to the United States, and they could show their willingness to serve in hopes of gaining respect in the white community. And initially there was not going to be any African American combat troops, but because of the protest launched by these early civil rights leaders, the federal government decided that yeah, okay, we’ll allot for four African American at the time colored regiments.

Nathan Connolly: Just thinking about all the ways in which the local politics of race played out in the military really makes the service itself seem that much more heroic.

Perry James: Absolutely it does. And I can only imagine my grandfather and his troops fighting for a country that saw them as not even citizens, not even second class citizens. And who if when they came back home, if these African Americans wore their uniforms they would be lynched or beaten up. And mind you, that’s a uniform that you were fighting in, and you got shot, and you spilled your blood, but you can’t wear that uniform when you come back home. So it was a distressing feeling for them.

Perry James: The group that my grandfather was in was nicknamed The Red Hands, and they were nicknamed that because of all the German blood that was shed by those hands. So they were pretty geeked up-

Nathan Connolly: Formidable.

Perry James: Yeah, they were all formidable, but that patch was a symbol of accomplishment. A symbol of their manhood. And the army did not want them to come back to the United States confident and cocky for lack of a better term. So they actually made them strip the Red Hand patch off of their clothing before they boarded the transport ship back to the United States. I’m a reinacter, I wear my grandfather’s uniform, and I wear his Red Hand patch proudly today.