/ Jared Olivetti

History as a work of honor

Count this as the post of a proud pastor. A friend and member of our congregation, Diana Vice, after months of hard work, was able recently to honor a local WW1 soldier named Leonard Inman. Finding that Inman, one of eighteen African-American men from our county who served in the first great war, didn't have a proper headstone in the veterans' cemetary, Diana jumped through many hoops in order to honor him properly with a moving ceremony and headstone. Her discovery about Inman happened while researching the "Black Yankees of Tippecanoe County" (a term of endearment used by the French soldiers who worked alongside our African-American soldiers in WW1).

Her work was featured in the local news here and here, as well as on national news sites here and here. Below you can read Diana's essay on Inman, including a note about the Reformed Presbyterians who worked in Tennessee training African-American students.

I wanted to mention Diana's work because it is a great example of the value of historical study. While we often study history in order to learn lessons for the present (or just to pass an exam), one of the great fruits of good history work is honor. History enables us to give glory to God by honoring those deserving of honor--which is a far more difficult thing than lamenting the injustices of the past. Surely Christians, charged by God with honoring their fathers and mothers, should be first in line to extend that honor to the fathers and mothers who have gone before us, serving us and even dying for us. So to those investing in the study of history, may Diana's example encourage you to see history as the pursuit of honor.

Remembering Leonard Inman: Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.  The National DAR Society encouraged local chapters to commemorate this milestone, and as I began perusing the pages of this 1919 Tippecanoe County World War I Honor Roll book, the first thought was to research the lives of the female nurses and one female doctor who served.  That all changed when I reached the last pages of the book.  It stood out that the eighteen African American men who served our country with honor and distinction were separated from the others and relegated to the back of the book.  As I studied the faces of those eighteen men, I wondered how they must have felt being disrespected this way after making such noble sacrifices for their country.  It was at that moment that a decision was made to study their individual lives and family histories and to give them the honor and respect they deserved.

Leonard was born to Porter and Alice Inman on August 20, 1893 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Porter was a well-respected farmer and pastor from Blount County, Tennessee.  The Inman family came to Lafayette in 1908 to work for William and Fannie Potter who had purchased and brought the famous 1904 World’s Fair Mansion to Lafayette, in pieces, from St. Louis.  It is now known as the Haan Museum and it still sits on State Street near the Ninth Street Hill.  Porter served as the groundskeeper while Alice took care of the chores inside the house.  According to census records, the Inman’s lived at the rear of the house.  Porter eventually became the pastor at the Bethel AME Church on Ferry Street in Lafayette.  The Inman’s were long-time members of this church.

Leonard was a young teen when the family moved to Lafayette. For a short time, he continued to live on the campus of the Knoxville College where he was given an incredible opportunity to attend school.  The Quakers and Reformed Presbyterians in Blount County, Tennessee trained teachers and funded educational institutions for African American students.  Leonard studied math, science, literature, theology, music, and mechanics. He later joined his parents and began working as the Potter family chauffeur.  One interesting tidbit to note is that Fannie Potter was a DAR member, so it’s likely Leonard took Fannie to DAR events and knew many of its members.

The war interrupted Leonard’s life, and he enlisted into service on August 22, 1918.  He was assigned to the 809th Pioneer Infantry, Company C.  Like many others, this unit was not allowed to engage in direct combat.  Eighty-nine percent of African American soldiers during World War I were not allowed to serve on the front lines due to ignorant and racist beliefs that black men were not up to the task even though black soldiers had a long history of serving with valor and distinction in previous wars.

To prevent African American soldiers from being discriminated against by their own countrymen, General Pershing placed these men under French command where they were held in high regard by their French counterparts for the efficient and swift movement of supplies.  Thomas Davis, an African American soldier who served alongside Leonard Inman, told how French soldiers and French civilians treated them with respect and were in awe of their abilities to move supplies swiftly.  “Black Yankees, that’s what the French people called us,” he said, noting that it was meant as a term of endearment.

After the war, Leonard returned to the United States aboard the U.S.S. Scranton.  His job with the Potters must have been filled, so he went to work for another prominent family, the Murdock’s who lived at 701 Kossuth Street.  Mrs. Murdock was also a DAR member, so Leonard obviously came highly recommended.

Over the years, Leonard worked for various employers, including the Monon Shops, the Railroad, and he continued to work part-time for the Murdock family.  At this time, he lived in the family-owned home located on Salem Street near the old St. Elizabeth Hospital.

In May of 1942, Leonard was invited to speak at a Victory Tea sponsored by the Mary L Club, a local organization that operated as part of the Indiana Federation of Colored Women, America’s oldest civil organization of black women that was founded in 1896.  In 1943, Leonard went to work for Alcoa to help with the war effort in producing aluminum.  He worked there until 1958.

Leonard was a trusted leader in the African American community.  He served his church as Trustee and Finance Club Chairman.  He liked to travel.  In 1933, he attended the Chicago World’s Fair.  I wonder if that interest developed from living in a World’s Fair mansion.

A Cub’s fan, Leonard attended a World Series game at Wrigley Field in 1942.  I sure hope it was the one game of that series that the Cubs won.  He was also a spectator at the Kentucky Derby when Hoops Junior won the race.  Leonard loved nice cars, and in 1957 he bought a 1955 classic.  We know about the car, because the newspaper reported that the hub caps were once stolen off that car.  Leonard was also civic-minded.  He served as a precinct committeeman for his district and worked the polls, a right he likely never took for granted knowing that his own father was not allowed to vote as a free Tennessee citizen even after the Civil War.

It is apparent that Leonard lived a successful life.  He was well-respected in the community.  His service in the Great War was commendable.  He died on November 25, 1973 at the age of 79 and was buried here in an unmarked grave, being passed over for 46 years as American flags were placed on the graves of veterans on Memorial Day.  We are here today to rectify this oversight.

Several of Leonard’s veteran comrades are buried nearby.  Their grave markers have been cleaned and marked with American flags.  Despite the unfairness and blatant discrimination, eighteen African American men from Lafayette, Indiana loved their country so much that they were willing to endure racism and hostility with grace and dignity.  They never gave up; they never allowed wicked attitudes to define who they were in the eyes of God.  They never turned on their country even though had reason to; rather, they took ownership of it and worked for change.

They became victors at turning the other cheek.  That’s one of the hardest Biblical principles to master, but they did it, and now they can serve as examples to all of us.  They didn’t come home to ticker-tape parades; they didn’t receive medals of honor that many of them earned.  They came home to face much bigger battles in the fight against racism and discrimination.

For that alone, they are heroes.  These men changed the course of history for our country.  The war could not have been won without the important contributions of our African American brothers.  May we never forget their service and sacrifice.

Jared Olivetti

Jared Olivetti

I'm a pastor at Immanuel RPC in West Lafayette, Indiana. God has blessed me with a wonderful wife, six kids and a loving church family.

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