Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Detective Work: A Misplaced Headstone

I was trolling through Greenman Tim's Cabinet of Curiosities [which I'll write about at a later date--for now suffice it to say, a day without Walking the Berkshires is no day at all] when I came across this curiosity:

Clarence Thomas
152 Depot Brigade
World War 1
December 13 1890
March 14 1956

It's the inscription on a headstone that's been "riding around" in the back of a pickup truck of Tim's aunt's handyman in Maryland. Tim reported that Aunt Peggy says:

In John's opinion this was the stone of a black man, hence the Depot Brigade, as African Americans were not allowed into the regular army in the first world war. It is in good condition, and shows no sign of being hit by tractor or plow, as can happen around the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

I told Tim [in his comments] that it's not the gravestone of a black man. How do I know? Well, the 152d Depot Brigade was stationed initially at Camp Upton, Yaphank, Long Island, New York, as part of the 77th Infantry Division. Like all Army units in WWI, the 152d was segregated and there were no black soldiers in it.

The early history of Camp Upton is told in a 1918 pamphlet by Roger Batchelder. He says that the 77th Division was known as the "Metropolitan Division" because "every man in the division was formerly a resident of Greater New York." Batchelder notes that there were black soldiers at Camp Upton. But they were not in the 152d Depot Brigade. The black soldiers were in the 367th Infantry Regiment and the 351st Machine Gun Battalion. And these organizations, though barracked at Camp Upton, technically were not part of the 77th Division. Instead, they were part of the 92d Infantry Division (Colored), the so-called "Buffalo Soldiers" Division.

So how to find this Clarence Thomas? Notice first the style of the inscription on the headstone. This is basically the style of inscriptions on headstones provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. See examples here. Given that, we should take a look at the VA's Nationwide Gravesite Locator. This database includes veterans buried not only at National Cemeteries, but at private ones as well. [It's worth noting here that there are no National Cemeteries in Delaware; there are three in Maryland, one in Annapolis and two in Baltimore]. Of the 110 "Clarence Thomas" names in the VA database, none fit our dates of birth or death, although there is a Pvt Clarence L. Thomas, buried in New Jersey (DOB: 1/24/1890; DOD: 3/7/1952), who comes close. While the disparate birthdates may be of no significance, let us assume that a four year discrepancy in a death date isn't close enough even for government work. Nonetheless, let's keep this one in mind while we move on.

The next simplest search may be the Social Security Death Index. We should try several versions of the SSDI. I like the ones at Rootsweb and GenealogyBank best. In using the SSDI for this case, I would narrow the search to those named Clarence Thomas who died in 1956. I would consider a 20th century death date more reliable than a 19th century birthdate. I might also check a couple of years before 1956. Having done the SSDI, we don't find any Clarence Thomas that comes close to our date parameters. (Why might that be? The data in the SSDI comes from the Social Security Administration's Death Master File. The majority of deaths listed there are from 1962 or later. Our subject died in 1956. Second, not every person is in the Social Security system. This depends on the type of employment and pension arrangements a person has.)

The next tool I would use is Find-A-Grave. This site has 19 million user-contributed gravesites, and it's easy to use. I'd follow the same procedures concerning dates as we did with the SSDI. There are a total of 168 individuals with the name "Clarence Thomas" in the Find-a-Grave database. Unfortunately, none of them appear to match our Clarence Thomas by dates or locations.

The tools we've used thus far are the "quick solution" tools. They've not given us an answer.
Before we move on to the more complicated tools, let's consider all that we know, including the following:

  1. The headstone apparently was found in the area of Maryland known as the Eastern Shore.
  2. The person in possession of the headstone believes it may memorialize a black man.
  3. The deceased was in a military unit that was almost certainly segregated, limited to white soldiers.
  4. A chronicler of the military installation where the unit was stationed says that "every man in the division was formerly a resident of Greater New York."
  5. The headstone indicates that the deceased either was born in, or entered military service from, Delaware.
With those things in mind, we'll move on to the more sophisticated analysis next.

COMING: Detective Work II: Newspapers, The Census, and Other Tools

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