In Honor and Memory of Higby Deitrich Morgan

Higby Deitrich Morgan
12 January 1896 - 3 April 1930

    On a cold winter day in January of 1896, Clarence and Henrietta Morgan welcomed their second child into the world, this one a son who they named Higby Deitrich Morgan.  Clarence was born in the town of Jeffersonville, Indiana, and still lived there with his family. Henrietta was born in Horse Cave, Kentucky, but the couple was married in Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1893.  At the time Higby was born, he joined his older sister Ophelia. By 1900 Henrietta had carried four children yet only two were living, but in 1915 the couple added a daughter named Evelyn to their family.  Evelyn was born in Indianapolis.

   At age twenty, Higby was working for the hospital in Peru, Indiana. He was well liked by the other staff and his patients. The following year he registered for the draft.  In September of 1917, the Fort Wayne paper ran an advertisement asking for black men to volunteer to enlist as stevedores. The spring of 1918 brought a series of disjointed reportings in the local Peru newspaper about Higby.  First he was listed as failure to appear, and then an article is published that he was already serving in France as an ambulance attendant. Another article reports he was in the navy. And yet another reports he was in hospital services in France.  But on the docket of a ship bound for France on June 6, 1918, there is listed a Higby Morgan whose next of kin is his mother Henrietta Morgan of Indianapolis, Indiana. It states he left from Newport News, Virginia on the SS Martha Washington as part of Company C, 336 Labor Battalion.  

    The 336 was shipped out of Camp Alexander which was an embarkation camp that was on the northern part of Camp Hill in Newport News, Virginia.  As the United States was racially segregated at the time of WWI, so was the military. Housed at Camp Alexander were black stevedore and labor battalions. In fact over 50,000 black stevedores and laborers were sent overseas from Camp Alexander to serve in WWI.   An embarkation camp was where troops were sent for processing to be transferred to Europe. Camp Hill was located on the east bank of the James River near a creek infested with malaria carrying mosquitos. The blacks were placed in tents with no floors, no cots, inadequate numbers of blankets and no mattresses.  No stoves for heat were provided in the tents. Clothing was inadequate and disease was rampant. Animals, 47,363 of them, were also processed from Camp Hill to go overseas with their manure causing flies to be a constant bother. Lice were also a significant problem. Troops and their belongings were deloused upon embarkation.  There were no bath houses for the black troops. Men arrived with no clothing besides the worn out things they were wearing as they had been told they would be issued uniforms. It took up to six weeks for them receive uniforms. Pre-enlistment physicals had not been completed on many of the new black recruits. There was significant overcrowding.  Blacks seemed less susceptible to influenza but measles, meningitis, pneumonia and STD’s were prevalent at alarming rates. Conditions were so poor that in February of 1918 the surgeon general demanded a solution and by the middle of 1918 a new camp was being erected and swampy areas were drained to prevent those malaria carrying mosquitos from breeding.  Hopefully, Higby saw conditions improving while he was stationed there. Yet wooden barracks were not started till mid June of 1918 and not completed until November. As a result, the black soldiers remained in tents at that location for the duration of the war.

    The name of the ship that Higby was transported to France on was the Martha Washington.  It was a transport vessel for troops. Before the war, she was an ocean liner, but she was taken over by the US Army in April of 1917.  Leaving Newport News on June 10, 1918, the Martha Washington arrived in France with Higby’s group on June 18, 1918. Higby served at the port of Saint Nazaire, France.  On August 19, 1918 the 336 labor battalion was absorbed into the 301 stevedore battalion.

USS Martha Washington
Click to enlarge

    Although 237,000 blacks were called to service during WWI, three out of four were placed in non-combatant positions because whites felt threatened by the idea of arming and training black men in combat skills. The Stevedores in France totalled about 50,000.  They had the same ranks, uniforms, regulations and rules as the rest of the army. There was great pride among the stevedore ranks, and they were as spit and polished as other army companies. The work of the army could not have taken place without the supplies that the stevedores kept moving.  They were called the Service of Supplies, or SOS. Their work was highly praised as they accomplished a great deal. Many of the workers had never seen a ship before they left for France on one. Upon arrival in France the black stevedores had to be given remedial diets, medical care and proper uniforms in order to be ready to start work. The holds of the ships were very hot in warm weather and the work unloading supplies was grueling.  But the stevedores remained positive and had their share of jokes, songs and stories to pass the long hours of drudgery that they worked.  Labor battalions were divided into gangs. There would be one gang for each hatch, with one person in charge on the deck and one in charge in the hold.  There was a constant procession of laborers from hold to dock. Supplies were then loaded into railway cars, canal barges or placed in warehouses. For every seven ships there was a traveling chief stevedore who traveled from ship to ship.  He would hurry things up by rewarding good work with time off and punish those who broke packages with the rock pile or worse.

Stevedores WWI
Negro Stevedore Regiments played and vital role in getting supplies to the troops. Click to enlarge.

    The stevedore operations were established by the army in order to move supplies through the ports in Europe.  In some cases they were sent on into the interior for work such as digging trenches to bury the dead. Some also rode motorcycles between fighting companies to hand deliver messages.  The stevedores received the worst treatment of all the blacks in the army. At the ports, the hours were long and often exceeded ten hours a day and seven days a week. The white officers who supervised the black stevedores were of poor quality.   Many of them were vaudeville performers, opera singers or stock brokers. After a while, as the war progressed, soldiers who had suffered shell shock, had been wounded, gassed or otherwise were unfit for battle were sent to the docks to work. As a result record keeping was poor.  Skilled positions such as crane operators were not filled. There were poor track conditions with a lack of cars to load the supplies onto. A lack of storage sheds and warehouses in which to store supplies was an additional problem. A lack of paved areas at the waterfront made it impossible for equipment to get near enough, and the stevedores had to work ankle deep in mud.  Because the dredging was behind due to the war, the ships sometimes had to lighten up before coming into dock. This resulted in partially unloading the ships out at sea. In spite of all these challenges, the morale of the stevedores was exemplary and they were devoted patriotic workers. In fact in October of 1918, the 301st was cited by Rear Admiral Wilson and General McClure for setting a record by unloading and coaling the S.S. Leviathan in fifty-six hours. A film was made showing the 301st at work and shown in both white and “colored” theaters state side.   Something else significant happened stateside on October 5, 1918. A baby girl was born in Brazil, Indiana. She was named Helen Elizabeth Morgan. Her father, Higby, was listed as a soldier in France.


The Stevedores

We are the Army Stevedores, lusty and Virile and strong;

We, are given the hardest work of the war, and the hours are long;

We handle the heavy boxes and shovel the dirty coal;

While the soldiers and sailors work in the light,

We burrow below like a mole.

But somebody has to do this work, or the soldiers could not fight;

And whatever work is given a man, is good if he does it right.

We are the Army Stevedores and we are volunteers;

We did not wait for the draft to come, and put aside our fears.

We flung them away to the winds of Fate, at the very first call of our land,

And each of us offered a willing heart, and the strength of a brawny hand.

We are the Army Stevedores, and work as we must and may,

The Cross of Honor will never be ours to proudly wear away.

But the men at the front could not be there

And the battles could not be won,

If the Stevedores stopped in their dull routine,

And left their work undone.

Somebody has to do this work;

Be glad that it isn't you!

We are the Army Stevedores; give us our due!



    Although the United States had fought the Civil War in the prior century, the Civil Rights Movement was still years in the future when WWI began. As a result,  there was segregation and Jim Crow laws at the time Higby served his country. Marines would not enlist blacks at all. The Navy limited the roles of blacks to cooks and stewards.  The army remained racially segregated. When registering for the draft, blacks were told to tear the corner of their card so they could be identified and most of them were limited to labor battalions.   There were two black combat units in the army during WWI, and the army did begin training camps to train black officers to lead them, but there was still a great deal of prejudice. White soldiers refused to salute black officers.  Black officers were banned from officers clubs. Black draftees were treated badly when they arrived at training camps. Not only did they often go a long time before being issued uniforms, sometimes the uniforms they were finally given were from the civil war.   Nevertheless, large numbers of black men eagerly served their country during WWI. But what was most unfortunate was that after the war the black soldiers returned to a country that did not welcome them. The white Americans feared that the returning blacks would expect equality and use their military training to get it.  As a result, during the summer and fall of 1919, there were twenty-six anti-black race riots in American cities and a rash of seventy-seven lynchings, of which ten were war veterans and some were lynched in uniform. It was not until after the next world war, in 1948, that there was an executive order to desegregate the military.

    What became of Higby following the war?  On the second day of December in 1919, in Indianapolis, Indiana,  he married Helen Howard, the mother of little Helen Elizabeth, who they called Betty.  He was a nurse at the hospital. On the second day of December in 1920, Higby and his wife Helen become parents of a daughter named Willa Mae. Higby was then working as an attendant.   And then in June of 1922 they had twin boys, Harold and Higby, Jr..  Higby Sr. was employed in an automated laundry at the time of their birth. The twins were premature and Harold died when only fifteen days old.  Higby Jr. lived till he was one year old and then succumbed to pneumonia secondary to measles.  The family were still living in Indianapolis at the time of little Harold’s death. In May of 1924, Helen gave birth to a developmentally disabled daughter they named Geraldine in South Bend, Indiana.  Higby was employed in transfer and hauling at the time she was born, but by 1929 Higby was listed in the South Bend City Directory as in business selling cigars with a store front address separate from his home address.  

   On April 3, 1930, at only 34 years of age, Higby Deitrick Morgan passed away at St. Joseph Hospital in South Bend after contracting bronchial pneumonia.  His grave was not found while researching this article. Higby served his country working at hard labor when he was needed. He went forth from Miami County, Indiana to do so.  The citizens of Miami County give their thanks and fondly remember Higby as a man who served their sick before the war and who kept their boys furnished with crucial supplies during the war.  

Written and contributed by Mary Rohrer Dexter

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