A New Look at the Diary of Jeffrey Wilson

A page from Jeffrey Wilson’s 1913 diary.

Our latest collection with a full transcription online is the Jeffrey Thomas Wilson Diary, which covers the entire year of 1913 in the life of Jeffrey Wilson, a prominent member of the African American community in Norfolk/Portsmouth, Virginia. The transcription project was funded by the Visible Scholarship Initiative, a collaboration between the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the University Libraries to provide mini-grants for projects that make visible the stages of research and creative scholarship in the liberal arts and human sciences. This particular project was a partnership between several faculty members in the History department, an undergraduate history student, and several members of the faculty here in Special Collections. The transcriptions for each of the 365 daily entries has been visually formatted and displayed as they appear on the page, and many words and phrases have been annotated with popup notes throughout.

The diary was written in a Wanamakers Diary (produced by the department store chain) actually designed for 1911. As Wilson states early on in the diary, I found myself unable to buy a diary like I wanted, therefore, I had to utilize this obsolete one changing days and dates. (January 6, 1913) Wilson hand-corrected the days of the week throughout to reflect 1913. What makes the diary so fascinating are the references Wilson makes to people, places and events that span nearly 70 years- from his childhood as a slave in antebellum Virginia, through the Civil War, the Reconstruction, the American Industrial Revolution and right up to the present time of his writing in 1913, as the early 20th century ushered in the modern world.

Jeffrey Thomas Wilson was born a slave in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1843, and, according to his obituary, his mother was a slave owned by Mrs. Eliza Edwards, second wife of Thomas E. Edwards, one of Portsmouth’s wealthiest citizens of his day According to the obituary, he never attended school and learned to read and write in secret as a slave boy. At some point in his childhood, Wilson became owned by the Charles A. Grice family, who he lived with beginning in 1853. Wilson writes:

This day 60 years ago, the writer was a little slave boy living on Bermuda street in Norfolk with my dear mother and wicked stepfather. he was a hackman, and my mother was a laundress. It was from there a year or two later, that old man C.A. Grice, and his wife, came and arbitrarily carried me back to Portsmouth, and put me at work in the garden, planting Irish Potatoes. and it no more living with Mammie for me. I learned then that I was indeed a slave. All of them are gone from earth. Mammie to heaven I believe, since then, of course. Fifty eight years ago my brother John and me walked down to the ferry landing in Norfolk, and he got into a boat, and boarded a vessel lying in the stream, loaded for Boston, and made good his escape. I never seen him again for a eleven years. That was what termed the U.G.R.R. [Underground Railroad] The Yellow fever was so serious. White people had no time to look after runaway Negroes, but after the dying whites.(August 14, 1913)

In his teens, Wilson was the valet servant of Alexander Grice, the son of his owner, and traveled with him as he served with Company A, Cohoon’s Battalion, Virginia Infantry, at least during a part of 1862. In 1866, after being freed, Wilson enlisted with the U.S. Navy and traveled through Europe and the US. After his years of service, Wilson returned to Portsmouth and worked at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, as a laborer, and as a bailiff for the Federal Court at Norfolk.

Through the course of his long life, Wilson outlived four wives and had at least twelve children. At the beginning of this 1913 diary, he was 70 years old, and married to his fourth wife of 3 years, Blanche, who was only 34. Their first son, Wendell, whom Wilson talks about frequently throughout the diary, was just a few months old. The couple would have five more children before Blanches death. Another topic frequently mentioned throughout the diary is the Emmanuel AME Church in Portsmouth, where he taught Sunday school and served on the Official Board, the governing body of the church. Wilson was a devoutly religious man, and each of his daily entries starts with quotes from Biblical verses, sometimes in reference to the events of the day, and sometimes referring or in some way similar to the daily sayings supplied by the Wanamaker Diary itself.

In his later years, from 1924 until his death in 1929, Wilson wrote a column called “Colored Notes” for The Portsmouth Star. The column included social news, Wilson’s political views, and issues of race relations, all themes that occur throughout the diary as well. Wilson was one of the first prominent African American newspaper columnists, and as well-known and outspoken member of the Portsmouth African American community, his column is a notable resource for studying the history and outlook of the community in this time period.

With the diarys pages and transcript now available and fully-searchable online, this can hopefully be another valuable resource for studying the life of this fascinating man, as well as the African American community of Portsmouth and more generally of the minority experience during this time period. The diary is available online here.

Alice- Virginia Tech’s 1960s Underground Newspaper

One of the most recent digital collections to go up on Virginia Tech Special Collections Online is Alice, an underground student newspaper published by The Blacksburg Free Press between 1968 and 1970. The 26 issues of the newspaper available here are a fascinating look at the progressive movement of the late 1960s and how those sweeping social changes played out on Virginia Techs campus and in the views and activities of Virginia Tech students.

The idea of a free press newspaper serving the Virginia Tech community came about during the 1968 Spring Break by a group of liberal-religious students headed by Everett Hogg. Alices creation was spurred by several events that had taken place recently on campus, the most notable of which was a scandal surrounding the disciplinary action taken against four students in January 1968 after they attempted to conduct a student opinion poll on the universitys dress regulations, which included prohibiting women from wearing pants. The official student newspaper, the Virginia Tech (now known as the Collegiate Times) had been publishing front page news articles on the developing scandal, but when a petition was created to be presented to the student government senate to reverse the disciplinary decision of the deans office, all mention of the scandal and the petition suddenly disappeared from the newspapers next issues.

A spread in Alice, Volume 5, No. 1, April, 1969
A spread in Alice, Volume 5, No. 1, April, 1969

The sudden, suspicious absence of a story so important to the student population caused many to worry that the university administration was pressuring the newspaper to suppress information that put them in a bad light. Because the University Publications Board controlled the Virginia Techs funds, the administration effectively controlled what they could and could not publish. As Bryan Ackler, one of Alices founding editors, wrote in a 1969 essay about Alice: The Virginia Tech as it was structured in the Spring of 68 was not suited for the liberal communities needs nor was it open to the type of news that needed to be presented.

The actual physical work of setting up the paper began in a secretive atmosphere. As Ackler writes: If the university could bust four students for taking a dress poll we didnt know what it would do about an unapproved newspaper. Surprisingly, the administrations reaction to the paper was quiet, and the Alice staff were able to publish with only minimal harassment from the administration for the entirety of the papers run. The first issue of Alice was published on May 18, 1968. A justification and kind of manifesto for the underground newspaper was written by Everett Hogg in the front page editorial in the first edition: V.P.I. is undergoing the metamorphosis from small college to large university.the fact that this campus is beginning, and must fully face the issues on our campus has demonstrated that there is a definite need for a focal point of free expression and presentation of ideas at V.P.I. Thus, the conception and birth of Alice.

The first two issues of Alice in the Spring of 1968 were immensely popular with the student body and quickly sold out. Despite this popularity, Alice did not garner the kind of responsive involvement from the student body that the staff had been hoping for, and the focus quickly shifted from creating a forum for dialogue between students and the administration to an open-ended presentation of various political issues and opinion pieces. As Ackler writes: we promised to print anything as long as it was well written and was of short enough length to make it printable in a newspaper.

Over the course of the next year, the small staff of Alice began to struggle with the realities of running an underground newspaper. As Ackler writes: shop keepers throw you out of their shops while you are soliciting ads, hate notes are nailed to your door and a lot of people call you a communist, even though they dont know what one is, they know what he looks like.

In other large schools there are other groups that do all of the organizing in the community. Here in Blacksburg until just last month there has been only one agency for any liberal action at all, that has been Alice. Where the general rule is that there is an organizing group and no media, here we had media and no organizing.Any action that the liberal community felt had to be taken, fell on the shoulders of the paper staff.

By the Fall of 1969, the frequency of Alice publications started to dwindle, and in early 1970, the paper went defunct. Despite its short run, Alice gives us an interesting snapshot of an important time in our history, a time when many things were in transition both on Virginia Techs campus and around the world. Check it out!

Steppin’ Out’s Wild Past

The first Steppin' Out logo, from 1981
The first Steppin’ Out logo, from 1981

Its the beginning of August, which for those of us living in and around Blacksburg, means the blocking off of Main Street and the beginning of Blacksburgs biggest festival- Steppin Out. The annual street festival, which features hundreds of arts and crafts vendors and tens of thousands of attendees, has been a Blacksburg tradition since the late 1970s. It began as an effort to revitalize the downtown and generate revenue for various local charities. But while digging around in Special Collections Vertical Files (where we collect news clippings and articles on various local subjects), I discovered that in the early days, the festival had a much wilder, and unfortunately, darker side.

The annual festival was first organized in 1976 as Deadwood Days, based off of a successful annual festival of the same name held in Deadwood, South Dakota. The original Deadwood Days festival commemorated the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok, an infamous outlaw of the Old West, on August 2, 1876, in the town of Deadwood, and the Blacksburg version was held for the first time a week after the shootings 100th anniversary.

Thus, for the first four years, the three-day festival had a Wild West theme, and really lived up to that theme in more than just the decor. A 1980 article in the Montgomery News Messenger described it as a rip-snorting, music-and-dancing-in-the-streets gathering enjoyed primarily by the under-40 crowd, adding It has also earned the reputation of a three-day beer bust and drug festival. Festival events during those first four years regularly ran past 1am, with increasing rowdiness and numerous arrests made by the Blacksburg Police for marijuana and cocaine possession.

All of that came to a head in 1979, when the Deadwood Days festival was marred in tragedy. After leaving Deadwood Days on Saturday night, a 17-year-old Blacksburg High School student was shot dead by two teens that hed given a ride from the festival. The teens had reportedly been drinking heavily at the festival, and had no trouble getting all the beer they wanted from downtown bars in the hours immediately proceeding [sic] the murder. In the aftermath, community members blamed the free-wheeling, shoot-em-up atmosphere of Deadwood Days for encouraging the murder, and in July of 1980, just one month before the 5th annual Deadwood Days festival was scheduled to begin, the Blacksburg Town Council voted 5-1 to ban the event.

In the wake of this decision, one council member was quoted in the Blacksburg Sun saying the festival would have to be planned two steps this side of Mary Poppins if it is even to come off in 81 or 82. And in August of 1981, with the strong support of Blacksburgs downtown merchants, a family-friendly arts and crafts festival called Steppin Out was held. The festival changed from a three-day to a two-day festival, with an ending time of 9pm, and included more kid-friendly activities and a much more wholesome atmosphere. Needless to say, Steppin Out was still a hit, and 2014 will mark 33rd year of the this downtown Blacksburg tradition.

So if some curiosity for Blacksburg history suddenly strikes you while enjoying this weekends festivities in the historic downtown, remember that the Vertical Files in Special Collections has information on many of the buildings, events and people that have made this town what it is today, and were here to help you answer your local history curiosities Monday through Friday, 8am to 5pm, every week. But until then, enjoy your weekend, but dont get too wild!

Milka’s Legacy- The Passion for Studying Women in Architecture Lives On

We’ve written several posts in this blog about people and collections related to the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA). It is one of our major collection areas, after all. But I’ve realized we haven’t actually covered how and why this massive collection came together here at Virginia Tech.

Photo: Milka Bliznakov in a car
Milka Bliznakov, IAWA founder

For this we can thank Milka Bliznakov (1927-2010), the founder of the IAWA. In 1974, Dr. Bliznakov joined the Virginia Tech faculty as a professor emerita of Architecture and Urban Studies. At this time she had already established herself as an international authority on Russian Constructivism and the Avant-garde, and was co-founder of the Institute of Modern Russian Culture, just three years after receiving her PhD in architectural history from Columbia University in 1971.

But getting to that point had not been easy. Born and raised in Bulgaria under Soviet control, she managed to escape in 1959 by bribing someone to smuggle her aboard a Mediterranean cruise boat. She arrived in France with no money or identification and only the clothes she was wearing, and managed to support herself by crocheting items to sell. In 1961 she arrived in the United States and began studying to become an architect.
After nearly a decade of teaching and studying architecture at Virginia Tech, Bliznakov began to turn her focus to women architects themselves. In the United States and many other countries around the world, architecture was still a very male-dominated profession, and very little of women’s contributions to the field had been documented. The idea to create an archive of women architects was inspired by some of Bliznakov’s female students, who had been asking her why, in their five years of architecture study, they had never been exposed to the work of women architects.
In 1985 Bliznakov founded the IAWA, and worked tirelessly over the next decade to research and collect the architectural drawings and papers of women around the world. Today the IAWA collection features the work of hundreds of women and continues to grow. You can browse our IAWA collections here. At her retirement in 1998, the annual Milka Bliznakov Prize was established in her honor, to recognize and promote research that uses the collection to advance knowledge of women’s contributions to architecture and related design fields. The records and projects of past award winners are available as an IAWA collection. Dr. Bliznakov passed away in 2010, but her passion for architecture and the work of women architects will live on for many years to come.

150 Years Ago: The Battles of Cloyd’s Mountain and the New River Bridge, as experienced in the John Holliday Diaries

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battles of Cloyds Mountain and the New River Bridge, significant events in the civil war that took place right in Virginia Tech’s backyard. Included in Special Collections’ vast Civil War and manuscript collections is the diary of John Holliday, a non-commissioned officer in Company C of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment who fought in these battles, giving us a unique first person perspective of this campaign. His first diary, with entries from May 1st to August 8th, 1864, has been digitized and is available at Special Collections Online.

Holliday joined the regiment in Spring 1864, and according to his first diary entry, dated May 1st, 1864, he was stationed in Fayetteville, in the newly-formed state of West Virginia. On May 3rd he began to march south through the Appalachian Mountains into confederate Virginia with 6,100 men in the three brigades of the Union Army of West Virginia under the command of General George Crook. Crook’s objective was to destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, cutting off an important supply line for the Confederate army. The rail depot in Dublin and the bridge across the New River in Radford were his primary targets.

Presumed portrait of John Holliday, date unknown, from the John Holliday Diaries and Photographs Collection (Ms2012-028)
Presumed portrait of John Holliday, date unknown, from the John Holliday Diaries and Photographs Collection (Ms2012-028)

After a week of marching, on May 9 Holliday and the rest of Crook’s forces reached a small gap through Cloyd’s Mountain, Virginia, just 5 miles north of Dublin, where confederate forces under Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins had set up a defensive line, hoping to catch the Union forces in a choke point. Holliday’s brigade, under the cover of the woods, managed to flank the confederate line on the left and divide their attention in the fight.

Holliday wrote, “advanceing under a heavy fire we arrived at the edge of the woods in front of their works… up the hill amid a Storm of Bullets we went driveing the enemy before us, at this moment a Rebel officer Riding a fine Black horse Rode along their lines waveing his hat in full View of both friend and foe tried to Rally his Broken Regt,, in This he failed many a Rifle was aimed at him but he rode off the field apparantly unharmed… The field was ours but at a heavy Cost not less than five hundred of our little Division was either Killed or wounded during the fight”

The battle, though small and involving relatively few troops, contained some of the most savage fighting and highest percentages of casualties in the entire war. The Union sustained 10% losses, while the Confederates sustained more than 20%. In all, more than 1,200 men lost their lives.

Having defeated the Confederate line, Crook’s troops moved into Dublin and destroyed the railroad depot. After camping for the night, on the morning of May 10 they set out again towards Radford and the New River bridge.

“at ten oclock we arrived within one mile of the Bridge. the roar of artillery in our front showed that the enemy was there and ready to dispute our passage at The Bridge…soon shot and shell went screeching through the air….they kept up a heavy fire cutting off limbs of trees around us. one of these falling wounded Sergt. B Lowman of Co. G. another shell striking near by killed two of the 7th Va Cavalry one of them a mere boy the shell striking him on the Breast tore him almost in atoms… our men fired the Bridge the flames spread Rapidly at this moment the enemy Gave way and three Prolonged cheers arose from our division the enemy was in full Retreat,, once more the day was ours,, each Regt formed above The Bridge and watched it untill the Vast structure went down,, three cheers was then given for Genrl Crook our noble Leader”

A page spread from John Holliday's first diary, featuring his entry for May 10, 1864, The Battle of New River Bridge
A page spread from John Holliday’s first diary, featuring his entry for May 10, 1864, The Battle of New River Bridge

The next day (May 11) Holliday traveled to Blacksburg, spending the night at the Preston and Olin Institute, which just eight years later would become the first campus building for Virginia Tech (then known as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College).

“Broke Camp early marched to Blacksburg a small Town in Montgomery County Containing Several fine houses the largest is the college a large Brick Building here we halted for the night had some Slight skirmishing on entering the Town in which a col of the militia was killed.”

After a night in Blacksburg, on May 12 Crook’s forces began their retreat back into West Virginia, crossing over Mountain Lake. Rain made their crossing a difficult one. “it has been raining all afternoon Cold and wet which makes it tiresome marching.”The considerable mud the troops encountered forced them to abandon many wagons and heavy supplies including some artillery along the roadside just past the Mountain Lake lodge, earning one hilltop the name ‘Minnie Ball Hill’ for all the minnie balls that were dumped there.

In the following months, Holliday and the 91st Ohio would go on to join the Valley Campaign, fighting in the battles of Lexington (June 11), Lynchburg (June 17-18), Winchester (July 20, 23-24) and Martinsburg (July 28), all recorded in detail in his first diary. An interactive online exhibit that traces some of Holliday’s movements across Virginia and West Virginia is available here.

 

Spring Splendor in Special Collections

Spring has officially begun, and it’s time to start planning out gardens and planting seeds. Seed catalogs, with their plethora of new and unusual varieties to grow and try, have been a typical part of Spring gardening preparations for a very long time. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at what past years have had to offer in Special Collections’ old seed catalogs.

The one that caught my eye was less a seed catalog and more a tour de force of vegetables and flowers in lithographic design. The Manual of Everything for the Garden, an annual seed catalog published by Peter Henderson & Company of New York, contains some of the most beautiful vegetable illustrations I have ever seen. Through their illustrated catalog, one could order nearly everything for the garden and yard, including seeds for vegetables, fruits, grasses, grains, and flowers, as well as gardening tools and equipment. Henderson founded the company in 1871, and by his death in 1890 it was one of the most successful seed companies in the United States. His son, Alfred Henderson, took over the business after his father’s death and continued the success- from the 1890s though the 1920s the company mailed out some 750,000 copies of its annual seed catalog each year. Yet despite its popularity, finding an intact Peter Henderson & Co. catalog today is extremely rare. The exceptional quality of their color plates and chromolithography made them highly sought after for the popular Victorian pastimes of scrapbooking and decoupage, resulting in most being cut to pieces.

Virginia Tech Special Collections is lucky enough to have a first edition copy of the 1898 catalog, which has survived completely intact, including two tipped in price lists. Nearly all of its 190 pages are filled with highly detailed chromolithographic prints, illustrating all the botanical splendor that the company’s seeds promise to grow. These beautiful graphics were made by Gray Lithograph Co. of New York, and Stecken Lithographic Co. of Rochester, NY, one of the largest centers of lithography in the country. As the long and dreary winter dragged on, I can only imagine how exciting flipping through these pages in anticipation of Spring would have been.

A new way to look at Civil War diaries

With the help of our new digital library site, VT Special Collections Online, we will soon be sharing some of our digitized civil war diaries in new and interesting ways. Using plugins designed by Neatline will allow us to create exhibits that display both transcripts and digital images of diary entries on timelines or as location points on maps. An early example of this can be seen with The Richard Colburn Diary.

Colburn, of Ellington, Iowa, started his diary on December 18, 1861, the day he enlisted in the 12th Infantry of the United States Regular Army. After two months of training he traveled east to New York and Washington DC, entering the fight to defend the Union. His daily diary entries recount his movements, which when plotted on the map, illustrates the vast distance he traveled to fight, as well as the significant difference that railroads made to travel.

Colburn’s 12th Infantry became involved in the Peninsula Campaign, including the Battle of Williamsburg and the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, where on June 27, 1862, Coburn was wounded and taken prisoner by the 5th regiment of Virginia. The remainder of the diary describes his hospitalization, his release on January 15, 1863, and his trip home. The exhibit helps to visualize his experience in the Civil War in an age of GIS and global connectivity. By overlaying his journey onto modern maps, it is easier to connect our world today with the events that took place over 150 years ago.

Make sure to check back to VT Special Collections Online in the coming months for more diaries to come!

Thanksgiving traditions at Virginia Tech

A menu for the traditional Sunday Thanksgiving dinner at Virginia Tech in 1924
A menu for the traditional Sunday Thanksgiving dinner at Virginia Tech in 1924

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As Thanksgiving approaches, the Virginia Tech campus becomes practically deserted as students, faculty and staff leave town en masse to celebrate the holiday with family and friends. But it wasnt always this way. For more than half of Virginia Techs history, family, friends and alumni would descend upon Blacksburg and Roanoke the week of Thanksgiving for one of VTs greatest traditions- the annual football game in Roanoke against their biggest rival, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).

The tradition began in 1894, when Virginia Tech (still known as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College) played their first game against VMI at Staunton on Thanksgiving Day. The entire VAMC Corps of cadets made a trip to the event. VMI won that game by a score of 10 to 6, but VAMCs spirit was not broken. The 1895 yearbook, the Bugle, states, At half past two o’clock we boarded our train and returned, not feeling the least humiliated over our defeat, for we all vowed that the day of reckoning should come and that with a vengeance. The next year, on Thanksgiving Day, 1895, VAMC defeated VMI with a score of 6 to 4 at a game played in Lynchburg. Thus, both a rivalry and tradition were born.

The annual Thanksgiving football game moved to Roanoke in 1896, where it remained for the next 73 years. The event became known as The Military Classic of the South, and spawned many traditions and week-long festivities during the Thanksgiving holiday, including dances, dinners and parades through the streets of downtown Roanoke. The festivities usually ended with a Thanksgiving feast held on Sunday in the College Mess Hall for the Corp of Cadets and their guests.1895

The ties between Virginia Tech and Thanksgiving were further strengthened as the college sports teams started being referred to as the Fighting Gobblers in the early 1900s. It wasnt long before the association between a Gobbler and a turkey resulted in Virginia Tech adopting this Thanksgiving bird as its mascot. In 1913, local resident and VPI employee Floyd Meade trained a large turkey to perform various stunts before the crowd at football games, and the tradition of having a live turkey on the sidelines of games continued into the 1950s, before being replaced by a costumed mascot.

Another Virginia Tech tradition that started at the annual Thanksgiving game was the Skipper cannon, and this Thanksgiving 2013, marks its 50th anniversary. For many years, VMI had opened the game by firing their game cannon Little John on the field. The VMI cadets would taunt their rivals by chanting VPI, wheres your cannon! In 1963, two cadet seniors, Alton B. Harper Jr. and Homer Hadley Hickam, not wanting to be out-cannoned by VMI any longer, gathered funds and materials to create the largest game cannon in the world. The entire operation was done in secrecy, with the intention of giving it a surprise debut at the 1963 Thanksgiving game. The cannon was completed just in time, and as Hickam and Harper were secretly driving it back to Blacksburg from the foundry in Roanoke on November 22, 1963, they got word that President Kennedy had been shot. As tribute to the fallen president, the cannon was named Skipper after John F. Kennedys naval background, and its first firing was 50 round salute on the upper quad, a military tradition given for fallen leaders. One week later, the Skipper was fired at the 1963 Thanksgiving Day football game, to the astonishment of the VMI cadets, and the tradition of the Skipper cannon being fired at Virginia Tech football games was born.

Cadets parade the Skipper cannon through the streets of Roanoke, circa Thanksgiving 1964
Cadets parade the Skipper cannon through the streets of Roanoke, circa Thanksgiving 1964

As one tradition was beginning, another was ending. After World War II, Virginia Tech had grown from a small military college to a much larger, civilian-dominated university, and the football program grew to a league standing far beyond that of VMIs football team. Thus, the old football rivalry came to end, taking with it the Thanksgiving Day game tradition. The last Thanksgiving Day game in Roanoke between Virginia Tech and VMI was played in 1969.

While Thanksgiving might not be what it once was at Virginia Tech, some of the college traditions it started still live on, without which Virginia Techs identity would certainly not be the same. So as I dig into my turkey this Thanksgiving, Ill be thinking about how it helped to create our mascot, and the next time I hear the Skipper cannon fire at a home football game, I will thank the Thanksgiving game tradition for inspiring 50 years of that iconic feature of Virginia Tech football.

For more about the Thanksgiving Day game tradition, check out Pre-WWII Thanksgiving at VPI. For more about the story of the Skipper Cannon, check out The History of “Skipper”.

A Medal of Honor in Special Collections

Portrait of Earle Gregory as a VT cadet, early 1920s
Portrait of Earle Gregory as a VT cadet, early 1920s

While Special Collections is primarily concerned with collecting rare and unique textual materials (we are, after all, part of a library, NOT a museum), there is still the occasional three dimensional artifact that finds its way here, usually as part of a larger manuscript collection, and/or because it provides valuable documentation of a particular subject in a significant way.

And as far as significance goes, one could argue that a Medal of Honor would be near the top of that list. The Medal of Honor is the United States of America’s highest military honor, awarded by the President of the United States in the name of Congress to US military personnel for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. Since its creation in 1861, 3,468 Medals of Honor have been awarded to servicemen (nearly half of those were awarded during the Civil War, when it was the only military award available). Due to its prestige and status, the Medal of Honor is afforded special protection under U.S. law against any unauthorized adornment, sale, or manufacture, and recipients are given special lifetime privileges and benefits from the US government, with their names and actions immortalized in ceremonies and monuments.

We have one of these Medals of Honor here in our collection, and this particular medal was awarded to Virginia Tech alum Sergeant Earle Davis Gregory (1897-1972). Gregory, of Chase City, Virginia, was the first native Virginian to receive the Medal of Honor, and one of seven Virginia Tech alums that have received the honor. Gregory earned the Medal of Honor for actions as an Army Sergeant in the 116th infantry regiment during the Meuse Argonne Offensive in World War I. The medal was awarded for gallantry at Bois de Consenvoye, north of Verdun, France on October 8, 1918. With the remark, I will get them! Sergeant Gregory seized a rifle and a trench-mortar shell (which he used as a hand grenade), left his detachment of the trench-mortar platoon and advanced ahead of the infantry, capturing 22 enemy soldiers, as well as a machine gun and a howitzer.

Earle Gregory as a student at Virginia Tech
Earle Gregory as a student at Virginia Tech

On October 11, 1918, three days after Gregorys heroic charge, he was seriously wounded by shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell in the left thigh, earning him the Purple Heart. Exactly one month after he was wounded, World War I ended. Gregory spent four months in a hospital in France before returning to Virginia in February 1919. On April 24, 1919, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by Major General Omar Bundy in a ceremony at Camp Lee. Gregory was also subsequently awarded equivalent medals from the Allied countries, including the Italian Merito di Guerra, the French Croix de Guerre and Medaille Militaire, and the Montenegrin Order of Merit.

Gregorys World War I medals from top left to bottom right: The Italian Merito di Guerra, the French Croix de Guerre, the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars Medal, the World War I Victory Medal with Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector Army battle clasps, the Cross of Military Service of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Medal of Honor, the French Mdaille militaire, and the Montenegrin Order of Merit
Gregorys World War I medals from top left to bottom right: The Italian Merito di Guerra, the French Croix de Guerre, the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars Medal, the World War I Victory Medal with Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector Army battle clasps, the Cross of Military Service of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Medal of Honor, the French Mdaille militaire, and the Montenegrin Order of Merit. Pictured in the top right is also his Virginia Tech 1923 class ring.

After the war, Gregory enrolled at Virginia Tech as a member of the Corps of Cadets and studied Electrical Engineering, graduating in 1923. As a senior, he was a Cadet Captain and Company Commander, President of the Corps of Cadets, and selected as “Most Popular Cadet.” After graduating, Gregory spent his career working for the Veterans Administration and was an active member of several veterans organizations. He passed away in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on January 6, 1972.

The Virginia Tech precision military marching unit, The Gregory Guard, was named in honor of Sgt. Gregory in May 1963, and in 1965, Gregory bequeathed his medals, along with his papers and photographs, to Virginia Tech Special Collections. An exhibit of highlights from the Earle D. Gregory Collection, including his medals, are currently on display in the Special Collections reading room.

Gregory meeting president John F. Kennedy at a military reception at the White House, May 2, 1963.
Gregory meeting president John F. Kennedy at a military reception at the White House, May 2, 1963.