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Private Kenneth O. Nelson

“Colored Boy, Argonne Hero, Buried Sunday.” 

On September 24, 1921, this was Binghamton’s Morning Sun’s title for its article about the next day’s military funeral in Endicott for a young, local African American soldier who was killed in action during the First World War.

The deceased, Private Kenneth Oliver Nelson, enlisted in the Army in Binghamton on April 19, 1918, and sailed to Europe in June after basic training as a member of the 368th Colored Infantry Regiment. Why he enlisted remains unknown, although many black soldiers identified military service as an opportunity to prove their patriotism, and worthiness for equal treatment. In any case, The Endicott Bulletin said that “he saw active service through the Summer and Fall” against German forces. He was wounded fatally on September 28 during the Allies’ attack on enemy positions in the Argonne region of France, a short few weeks before the Armistice was signed on November 11.

But Private Nelson’s reburial three years after his death needs explanation. On occasion during the War, the deceased were buried quickly in marked graves with the intention of transporting the remains back home, and this was the case for him. While he had family members in Waverly, his wife resided with her parents in the Town of Union. The Binghamton Press reported that Nelson’ remains were transported by rail with “soldier escort,” and upon arrival in Endicott, was taken to a local funeral home.

The funeral service with full military honors was held at Private Nelson’s in-laws’ house under the auspices of the Union-Endicott Post 82 of the American Legion. In fact, its members marched from their clubhouse to the service in honor of the fallen soldier. At the service’s conclusion, a firing squad saluted him, and the Post’s bugler sounded taps. He was the only black soldier from Broome County to be killed in action during World War I out of the many others who enlisted.

Private Nelson was buried in Riverside Cemetery, but his legacy lived on in a honored way. Other black veterans—who could not join local military associations due to the color line—initiated the formation of the Kenneth Nelson Post 1310 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars which held meetings at the Colored Citizens Club in Binghamton until the 1930’s.

100 years ago, Private Nelson personified the American spirit of service, and illustrated African American participation in our wars since the American Revolution. While his Regiment’s combat record at the Argonne was belittled by some critics, Secretary of War Newton D Baker dismissed the critic’s comments as examples of racial prejudice, which was absent at his burial.

As the First World War drew to a close, Private Nelson became a hero by combated the enemy in the Argonne region whose service deserves to be remembered.

This article was originally published on 9/27/18 on NewYorkHistoryReview.com.

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