ST. PETERSBURG — In January, Sofie Barrett’s professor handed her a World War I soldier’s name, date of birth and Army serial number. Those were her clues.
Then the University of Central Florida student spent the rest of the semester piecing together the life of William L. Davis, an African-American soldier who served in World War I.
That mission brought her Thursday to Davis’ grave at Bay Pines National Cemetery.
Along the way, the 20-year-old senior learned much about Davis and the challenges African-Americans faced in World War I.
“It was a different perspective of war for me,” Barrett said. “He must have been a very strong, brave individual to be able to live through an experience like that.”
Barrett’s research is part of UCF’s partnership with the Veterans Legacy Program. Launched in 2016 by the National Cemetery Administration, which is under the Department of Veterans Affairs, its goal is to unearth the histories of veterans buried in the nation’s 136 national cemeteries and share their stories with the public.
UCF students and researchers spent the spring semester researching short biographies of 12 veterans at Bay Pines. They will be added to the university’s database of Florida veterans buried in Florida National Cemetery, St. Augustine and two American cemeteries in France. Eventually, visitors will be able to download an app, point their phones at select gravestones and learn about who is buried there.
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For Barrett, a history major and aspiring lawyer, tracking down information on Davis was her first big research project — and a daunting one. There were days when her searches turned up nothing.
Document trails for African-Americans of the period are sparse, a reflection that segregation was in full force in the South. She knew Davis was born in 1893 and died in 1952, but much of his life between those years was a mystery. And “William Davis” was, after all, a common name.
“I did get frustrated,” she said.
Then she finally struck gold: She found Davis’ name on a ship log from his trip to Europe. It was a “big moment,” she said.
“Knowing his name was attached to a bigger document — it was real,” she said. “I was finding hard evidence that he was here, he did this, he was with these people at this time. That was really cool.”
Eventually she learned that Davis was from Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Army in Jacksonville. Many African-Americans were eager to enlist at the time, she said, hoping that wartime experience would “serve as a platform for their fight for equality.” Yet most wouldn’t even live to see the Civil Rights movement.
Davis was promoted to private first class, a rarity for an African-American soldier. Back from war, she found out he married and had a daughter. Then the trail went cold.
There was much that remained a mystery: She could not find Davis’ photo. In fact, after three years UCF students have not found an individual photograph of a single African-American who served in World War I. She couldn’t find a photo of his house. She found his mother’s address in Philadelphia in census data, but it’s now an intersection. Nor could she find out what brought Davis to Georgia, where he eventually died.
To fill in the gaps, Barrett learned details about the conditions Davis worked under and the discrimination soldiers like him faced.
African-American soldiers served in segregated units in World War I. They were generally not allowed to carry arms because the government feared they would use their training to foment rebellion at home. Instead, they worked behind the front lines in service and sanitary units.
Records showed Davis remained in Europe for 11 months after the end of the war. Barrett said that means he was likely assigned to a clean-up crew, hauling dead bodies. It was a job mainly reserved for African-American soldiers, and as a result many died from exposure to disease.
They suffered many other indignities. One of Barrett’s most surprising findings was that some African-American regiments were issued Confederate uniforms leftover from the Civil War.
“It was obviously a slap in the face,” she said. “How would you even justify doing that? But it happened.”
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Barrett visited Davis’ grave with UCF professor Amy Giroux and graduate student Walter Napier Thursday to collect pictures of headstones for the app. The group arrived at Bay Pines with a GPS tracker, a camera and a list of names to guide them through the pristine lawn of the cemetery, where the headstones lie flat on the ground
The students had found other stories buried in Bay Pines:
Cpl. John T. Cowsert made his home in Tampa after fighting at the Mexican border in 1917, then serving in World War I. He spent 19 months in in Europe and served with field artillery in three major battles, surviving without injury. He received the Pershing citation and two Croix de Guerre.
When he died in 1944 at the age of 49, the then-St. Petersburg Times reported he was the superintendent of the meter department for Florida Power Corp. There was even a photo — the holy grail for the UCF students.
Jane Margaret Gadde was a trailblazer who enlisted as a nurse during the war. She became one of the first women to legally serve in the Army corps at a time when women still could not vote. She worked in a psychiatric unit in La Fauche, France. During World War II she re-enlisted and was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone.
So far more than 300 students have participated in the project, producing about 200 veterans’ biographies. Many students have found a personal connection in the work, said Amelia Lyons, the history professor who leads the UCF project. Some are veterans themselves or have family in the military. Last year, students worked on Floridians buried in American cemeteries in France and some even traveled there.
The soldiers’ stories of sacrifice and early death were particularly poignant, Lyons said, as the students realized they were the same age as many of their subjects.
Walter Napier, 31, an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan turned graduate student, said he came to UCF planning to focus on studying the military history of Ancient Rome.
But participating in the project reshaped his studies.
The deeper he got into the Veterans Legacy Program — editing biographies, traveling to France and teaching fourth graders — the more he felt pulled towards memorializing a war that Americans sometimes forget.
“I was interested in how things are remembered,” he said. “And why certain thing are forgotten.”
World War I connected with his own experience serving overseas in wars that many Americans rarely hear about. He remembered that while departing in 2008 for his first tour in Afghanistan, someone at the airport asked: “Is that war still going on?”
He now plans to obtain his doctorate in modern French history during World War I. “I felt a kinship to veterans of World War I,” he said, “because their war is kind of overshadowed by big brother World War II.”
For Barrett, her portrait of Davis — even full of frustrating gaps — also felt personal. She is African-American, with relatives who have served in the military:
“His story would have been similar to the ones of my family.”
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kavitha Surana at [email protected] Follow @Ksurana6