Several African American units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans. During World War I, 171 black soldiers were awarded the French Legion of Honor for their efforts.

More than 350,000 Black Americans served in segregated units during World War I and Townsend Cemetery in Covington is the final resting place for many of them.

When the United States declared war against Germany in April 1917, the War Department quickly realized that the United States did not have enough men to ensure a victory overseas.

On May 18, 1917, congress passed the Selective Service Act requiring all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for the draft. Even before the act was passed, African-American males from all over the country eagerly joined the war effort, viewing the conflict as an opportunity to prove their loyalty, patriotism and worthiness for equal treatment in the United States.


The first black troops sent overseas belonged to service units, and served in positions of support with only a small percentage actually involved in combat.

As the war continued, the Black labor units became even more important, responsible for digging trenches, removing unexploded shells from fields, clearing disabled equipment and barbed wire and burying soldiers killed in action.

Soon, Black soldiers took to the battlefields serving in cavalry, infantry, signal, medical, engineer and artillery units, as well as chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists and intelligence officers.

The U.S. Army, while still discriminatory, was far more progressive in race relations than the other branches of the military. Blacks could not serve in the Marines at all, and could only serve limited and menial positions in the Navy and the Coast Guard. The U.S. Army was where they could really make an impact, and many of them did.

Artemus McCollum’s gravesite in Townsend Cemetery

Artemus McCollum, is one such soldier. Born on June 7, 1888 in Tipton County to Henry McCollum and Ann Cage McCollum, Artemus joined the U.S. Army on April 28, 1918 at age 29. He was assigned to Co. D, 417th Service/Labor Battalion as a cook. He was a farmer at the time of his enlistment and was married to the former Miss Harriet Barnes on Dec.18, 1910.

After he served for just over a year, he was discharged the day before his birthday, June 6, 1919. He came back home to Covington to his wife and his farm and picked up where he left off, having served his country faithfully.

He died at the age of 51 from heart disease on Sept. 2, 1939 and is buried in Townsend Cemetery.

Another soldier was Valley H. Yarbro of Covington, who served as a sergeant in the 113th Co., of the 804th Pioneer Infantry, U.S. Army.

The Pioneers were men experienced in life in the open, skilled in woodcraft and simple carpentry. The Army used the Pioneer Infantries to march ahead of each battalion to clear a passage through woods or other obstructions for the troops.

These soldiers would make bridges, improve roads and generally complete any minor engineering or construction work needed to move the armies forward.

The son of John Yarbro and Beulah Jeffers Yarbro, Valley was born on Jan. 26, 1895 and died on Mar. 14, 1931 at the age of 36.

Both are buried in Townsend Cemetery on Hope Street in Covington.

Sherri Onorati
Author: Sherri Onorati