Soldier, Medal of Honor recipient. This Anderson County native was the nation’s only African American from World War I to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest decoration for heroism. The fourth of ten children born to Wylie and Annie Stowers, he grew up on a farm near Sandy Springs. He had a wife, Pearl, and a daughter, Minnie Lee. He was drafted in October 1917 and underwent initial training at Camp Jackson. All U.S. armed forces were segregated during this time, and few African Americans had the opportunity to become officers. Violent incidents during the summer of 1917 between black troops and white civilians in Houston, Texas, and in Spartanburg, South Carolina, strained race relations still more. Like many other African American draftees from South Carolina, Stowers served in the 371st Infantry Regiment, which had been formed at Camp Jackson. The army sent this regiment overseas in April 1918 as part of the all-black 93d Infantry Division, but because few U.S. generals wanted to command African American troops, the 371st and the three other regiments that comprised the 93d were attached to the French army. Although the American soldiers kept their khaki uniforms, they carried French weapons and equipment. France would later recognize the 371st for its World War I service by awarding the organization the Croix de Guerre with Palm for its “superb spirit and admirable disregard for danger.”
Having attained the rank of private first class in December 1917, Stowers was promoted to corporal the following May. He served as a squad leader in Company C of the 371st and spent the summer in the Lorraine sector. Corporal Stowers distinguished himself in action and lost his life on September 28, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. More than half of his company was killed after the Germans lured the Americans onto open ground by pretending to surrender. The enemy soldiers then jumped back into their trenches and opened fire with rifles, mortars, and machine guns. Stowers led the survivors of his squad in an attack on the machine gun that most threatened his company. After destroying the nest and killing the occupants, the corporal kept crawling forward until machine gun bullets from another position struck him. Though badly wounded, he continued encouraging his squad until he died. Stowers’s actions and inspirational bravery contributed to the capture of an important hill and the infliction of a high number of casualties on the Germans.
Stowers’s commander recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but whether through administrative oversight or racism, the award was not processed. Because the recommendation had been made within two years of the battle, however, military regulations allowed for the process to resume when the paperwork was discovered more than seventy years later after several congressmen questioned why no African Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I. On April 24, 1991, President George Bush presented the medal to the hero’s surviving sisters, Georgiana Palmer and Mary Bowens. Stowers is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.
“A Medal of Honor for a Black Soldier from World War I.” New York Times, April 6, 1991, p. 6.
Megginson, W. J. Black Soldiers in World War I: Anderson, Pickens, and Oconee Counties, South Carolina. Seneca, S.C.: Oconee County Historical Society, 1994.
Radcliffe, Donnie. “At Last, a Black Badge of Courage.” Washington Post, April 25, 1991, p. C3.
Stuart, Bob. “Medal of Honor Presentation Seeks to Rectify Slight of World War I Hero.” Columbia State, April 24, 1991, pp. B1, B2.