For more than 200 years, African Americans have participated in every conflict in United States history. From Crispus Attucks during the beginnings of the Revolutionary War, to the appointment of General Colin Powell as Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, African Americans have courageously fought the common enemies of the United States.
The patriotism of African Americans is even more amazing, considering that many black soldiers fought for the nation while also confronting the individual and institutional racism of their countrymen. Since their beginnings, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUS) have been in the forefront of this somewhat paradoxical patriotic struggle. Clark Atlanta University (CAU) has a long patriotic legacy that goes back to its founding institutions, Atlanta University (1867) and Clark College (1869):
Preparing the Nation's Black Soldiers
Atlanta University and Clark College were among Georgia's first to participate in the designated Student Army Training Corps (SATC) which was the precursor of what is today known as the ROTC. According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, the Peach state participated actively in military training for university men in what historian Walter Cooper called "Atlanta's College Army."
According to the July 1943 edition of the Atlanta University Bulletin, Army Administration School Branch No. 7, was housed on the campus of Atlanta University, and trained “enlisted men of the arms and services” with the Army Air Forces in basic administration. The University was charged with the mission of developing “able administrators capable of functioning with a minimum of supervision.”
During the six months that the school was in session, approximately fifteen hundred soldiers received certificates of graduation from the commandant, Colonel Carl E. Nesbitt. There were nine officers on the administrative staff, and thirty on the instructional staff and faculty.
This was the second time that Atlanta University had served the Army. A quarter of a century earlier in World War I, the University served as a military post at which students likely to be called for active service were given instruction in what was known as the Army School for Mechanics, which trained black soldiers in civic engineering.
Military Service to Social Work
CAU’s Whitney M. Young Jr. School of Social Work has long served as fertile ground for military veterans seeking to “beat their swords into plowshares” in service to others. Since its founding as the independent Atlanta School of Social Work in 1920, the school has attracted and produced passionate, military veterans who have served the nation from the battlefields abroad to our communities here at home. Jesse O. Thomas, one of the School’s early founders, led efforts by the U.S. Treasury to sell war bonds to the black community during World War II. The School’s first dean and civil rights pioneer, Whitney M. Young Jr., Jerome Farris, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge (AU, 1955) and Famed Artist/Sculptor Noah S. Purifoy (AU, 1948), are among the many CAU Social Work scholars who have also served in the military.
Listed below are the many CAU alums, faculty and students whose historic contributions have distinguished them in service to our nation:
Sgt. Whitney M. Young Jr. | U.S. Army
Whitney M. Young aspired to become a physician after college, but his experiences as a noncommissioned officer in a segregated Army changed his mind. In 1944, during World War II, he was assigned to a road construction crew of black soldiers supervised by Southern white officers. After just three weeks, he was promoted from private to first sergeant, creating hostility on both sides. Despite the tension, Young was able to mediate effectively between his white officers and black soldiers angry at their poor treatment. Acting as a bridge between black and white servicemen propelled Young into a career in race relations. As a result, Young switched his career interest from medicine to social work.
After the war, he earned a master's degree in social work at the University of Minnesota in 1947 and soon thereafter, began his history making career as a distinguished civil rights leader, social reformer and dean of the school of social work, which today bears his name: The Whitney M. Young Jr. School of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University (CAU).
Noah S. Purifoy served as a “Seabee” in the United States Navy during World War II. After the war he attended Atlanta University, where he earned a graduate degree in social services administration. In 1953, he became the first African American to enroll as a full-time student at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), where he earned his BFA in 1956, just before his 40th birthday. In the late 1980’s, Purifoy spent eleven years in public policy work for the California Arts Council where he initiated programs such as Artists in Social Institutions, bringing art into the state prison system. As the co-founder of the Watts Towers Art Center and creator of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, he is best known for his large-scale assemblage sculptures, including a body of work made from charred debris and wreckage collected after the Watts Riots of August 1965.
Hon. Jerome Farris | U.S. Army
Atlanta University, 1955
Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Judge Farris served in the United States Army Signal Corps from 1952 to 1953. After service, he earned his Master of Social Work from Atlanta University and Juris Doctor with Order of the Coif honors from the University of Washington School of Law in 1958. Nominated by President Jimmy Carter on July 12, 1979, to a new seat authorized by 92 Stat. 1629. He was confirmed by the Senate on September 26, 1979 and received commission on September 27, 1979. Judge Farris Assumed senior status on March 4, 1995.
Hon. Clarence Cooper | U.S. Army
Atlanta University, 1955
Senior U.S. District Judge, District Court for the Northern District of Georgia
Judge Cooper served in the United States Army during 1968-1970, became staff sergeant, received the Bronze Star and Certificate of Commendation. He was an Assistant district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia in 1968 and from 1970 to 1975. He was a judge on the City of Atlanta Municipal Court, Georgia from 1975 to 1980. Cooper was the first African American appointed to a full-time judgeship on the Atlanta Municipal Court. He is 1964 honors graduate of Clark College, where he majored in Political Science and History.
Second Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper | U.S. Army
Henry Ossian Flipper (March 21, 1856 – April 26, 1940) was an American soldier and former slave. Flipper attended Atlanta University for one year during Reconstruction; Representative James C. Freeman appointed the freshman to attend West Point. In 1877, Flipper became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point, earning a commission as a second lieutenant in the US Army. Unfortunately, while serving with the 10th Cavalry, he was framed for embezzlement. President Bill Clinton granted him a posthumous honorable discharge in 1999.
Maj. Richard Robert Wright Sr. | U.S. Army
Richard Robert Wright (May 16, 1855 – July 2, 1947) was an American military officer, educator and college president, politician, civil rights advocate and banking entrepreneur. He was valedictorian at Atlanta University's first commencement ceremony in 1876. Among his many accomplishments, he founded a high school, a college (Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth which would later become Savannah State University) and a bank (the Philadelphia’s Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company).
In August 1898, President William McKinley appointed him as Major and the first African American paymaster of United States Volunteers in the United States Army. During the Spanish–American War, he was the highest ranking African-American officer. He was honorably discharged in December of the same year. A year after his death, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a bill to make February 1 National Freedom Day. Wright initiated this holiday to recognize the day in which the 13th Amendment was signed by President Abraham Lincoln to free all U.S. slaves.
Irma Jackson Cayton Wertz (May 8-1911- ) was a member of the first Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACS) Officer training class commissioned at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, during World War II. Born in Brunswick, Georgia, Jackson was the product of a military household. Her family was stationed in Des Moines while her father, who served as a captain in the segregated army during World War I, attended officer’s training camp. After graduating from Fisk University and then Atlanta University where she received a master's degree in sociology, Jackson moved to Chicago, Illinois where she gained employment as a social worker in the South Parkway Community Center. In 1942 Jackson applied for entrance into the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. After successfully passing a battery of examinations, Jackson was briefly assigned to the WAAC Headquarters in Washington, D.C. as a recruiter. Shortly thereafter, she relocated to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where she met and married William Wertz and joined the Thirty-second WAAC Post Headquarters Company. Under her leadership, the Thirty-second earned the highest ratings for efficiency on the military base.
Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson | U.S. Air Force
Alexander Jefferson (born November 15, 1921 in Detroit, Michigan), is a retired US Air Force officer, famous as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the 332nd Fighter Group. In 1942, he graduated from Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and Biology, and then earned his master's degree in education from Wayne State University. On June 3, 1944, Jefferson and his fellow officers were deployed to Italy with the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, which would remain segregated from their white counterparts, even while serving in combat. He participated in many successful missions protecting bombers and strafing enemy targets on the ground, before being captured and held as a prisoner of war. On April 29, 1945, Jefferson was liberated from the POW camp Stalag Luft VIIIA. He retired from the Air Force Reserves in 1969 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel; he pursued a Master’s degree in science education, and enjoyed a long career teaching elementary science and as a school administrator Lt. Col. Jefferson now lives in Michigan with his daughter.
Louis Tompkins Wright | U.S. Army Medical Corp
Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright (July 23, 1891 – October 8, 1952) was an American surgeon and civil rights activist, and a graduate of Clark College (Class of 1911). Shortly after completing medical school and moving back to Georgia, Wright joined the Army Medical Corps, serving as a lieutenant during World War I. While stationed in France, Wright introduced intradermal vaccination for smallpox and was awarded the Purple Heart after a gas attack. In 1919 he became the first African American appointed to the surgical staff at Harlem Hospital, the first at a non-segregated hospital in New York City. During his tenure at Harlem Hospital, Wright established the Harlem Hospital Bulletin and the hospital’s medical library in 1934
Hon. James Randolph Spencer |U.S. Army JAG Corp
James Randolph Spencer (born 1949) is a former federal judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. He was born in Florence, South Carolina in 1949 and attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1971. He earned Juris Doctor in 1974 at Harvard Law School. After Harvard, he was commissioned as a captain in the United States Army JAG Corps. He served in that capacity from 1975 until 1978. After being honorably discharged from the active duty, he became an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, serving there from 1978 until 1983.
For more about our Veterans check out the CAU Wall of Valor