306. Sgt. James Tompkins

How do you honor veterans who have fought for the United States?

Nearly 3,000 men from Howard County fought in World War I, including a number of African Americans. Needing more troops to fight in Europe, the government instituted a military draft. James W. Tompkins, who was born in Hanson, Kentucky, in 1892 and lived in Kokomo in 1916, answered the call.

Tompkins enlisted in the Army on July 24, 1918. As a soldier of “African descent,” the corner of his draft card was clipped to denote his race. Troops were segregated. After training at Camp Taylor, Kentucky, and Camp Humphreys, Virginia, he set sail for France on September 20, 1918. According to a notebook he kept, his convoy was attacked by a submarine during the transit.

Tompkins’ ship arrived in France on September 29. He reported to his duty station, Camp Donges, assigned to the 541st Engineer Service Battalion. Though he was in an engineering unit, as a result of the treatment of African Americans during World War I, it is likely that he worked as a laborer.

After the fighting ceased, Tompkins returned to the United States where he was discharged from the Army with the rank of sergeant on July 30, 1919. He returned to Kokomo to his job at Continental Steel and remained here for the rest of his life. A member of American Legion Post 177, Tompkins died in 1983. 

How do you think race relations were affected by having African American men like Tompkins in the military fighting for the United States?

For more information about the African-American experience in WWI read the book The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri. (no e-book available)

For more information about the African-American experience in the US Military from the Revolutionary War through WWII see the paper A Historic Context for the African-American Military Experience by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Construction Engineering Research Laboratories, July 1998. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a350395.pdf