Emmett J. Scott and Community Insights in the OPFs

Today’s post is by Cara Moore Lebonick, Archives Reference Specialist at the National Archives at St. Louis.

Personnel records are lauded for their genealogical richness. They typically contain full names, maiden names, birthdates, death dates, next of kin, and even sometimes relevant children’s information, medical data, and photographs. The records offer insight into the working lives of these individuals in a very specific manner, strictly relevant to the subject of the record, rather than the broad lens of administrative records – which is often a next stop for researchers who want to learn more about the projects their individuals worked on. 

The National Archives at St. Louis’ holdings centers around those who have worked in federal service or the military. These records provide the genealogical relevance mentioned above but they can also provide invaluable historical context for the time of creation. In working with the record of an individual, we can come to understand the greater significance of their role(s) in the community and country. If an ancestor did not have military or federal service one can take a creative line of thinking and researching; those looking to learn more about their ancestors can look to the personnel records of those their ancestry interacted with, in order to see if the outside individual’s record mentions the family member.

collage of various letterhead
Various letterhead from the official personnel file of Emmett J. Scott

Emmett J. Scott was a Special Assistant to the Secretary of War during World War I. Scott’s role was a brand new one, that of Negro Affairs. The position was significant insight into efforts of the federal government. The individual in the position, however, was critically important. He was a veteran of journalism and war reporting and had experience in an advisory role. This combination of experience made him an ideal candidate for the new government position. Scott’s role was to report on the conditions of the Black soldiers during WWI. While he undoubtedly is important to many ancestors, his personnel record offers an excellent context to the Black community during WWI in a way that may not have been documented in any official capacity.

Sec of War appointing Scott as special assistant
Letter from Secretary of War Newton D. Baker to Division and Brigade Commanders, Nov 1, 1917

The search for his personnel record began with cursory information. We knew his name, role, and birthday. The role, “Special Assistant of Negro Affairs to the Sectary of War,” seems straight forward enough. A personnel record should exist within the War Department record series of personnel records. However, the “special assistant” part of the title gives pause. Sometimes these types of positions were deemed as a more consulting role, which could mean no personnel record was ever created. The historical context of the War Department is also significant to this search. Personnel records stopped being created under the War Department agency title in 1939, and then were either created by the new Department of the Army/Air Force, which joined the Department of the Navy under, what would eventually come to be called, the Department of Defense. 

This is important because a researcher must know and understand that individuals who served during the War Department period, may have had their personnel records retired at a later time, for many reasons, resulting in their records being in the later and different record series. This was the case for Scott. In addition to knowing what to search for in the Department of the Army/Air Force records for Scott’s Official Personnel Folder (OPF), it was also necessary to know and understand soundex coding, as that is how the Department of the Army/Air Force organized their records.  The surname Scott takes on one of the more complicated soundex rules and becomes S300, ignoring the first consonant after the first letter of the last name because it is similar to the first letter of the name. A staff searcher who is in the stacks hoping to find a personnel record in the War Department, who then has to think on their feet to check the Department of the Army/Air Force, needs to know these coding mechanisms and their rules in order to avoid navigating back out of the stacks to find a soundex calculator to compute the code.

Once the record has been located and pulled, with appropriate chain of command charge out in place, we can get back to the story of how Emmett J. Scott’s OPF touches more than just his ancestor’s history. Scott’s appointment reverberated across the nation.  Relevant to the job he was called upon to do, there are letters from soldiers, notes he wrote after visiting various camps, and reports from generals. His OPF makes it seem like the Black community was immediately aware of the importance of the creation of such a role, the significance of having one of their own doing the reporting and observing, and eager to express their support. Here, we see extensive letters from a wide range of people. Well known institutions and individuals like Booker T. Washington, Jr. son of the founder of the Tuskegee Institute (now University), James Weldon Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mary McLeod Bethune from the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida, Entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker wrote on behalf of her Lelia College, which trained hair stylists. Particularly relevant is W.E.B. Du Bois’ letter from The Crisis, due to Scott’s specific assignment to send reports of the Black soldier’s experience to news media outlets, in order to bolster support of the war and to give the public a more real time understanding of soldiers’ experiences.

asks for Scott's participation in the Pan-African conference in Paris
Letter from WEB Du Bois to Emmett J. Scott, Nov 27, 1918

These names are commonly synonymous with racial uplift within Black history, a subject that has become more popular as researchers, publishers, and streaming outlets more readily provide a platform to showcase their spot in American history. Beyond these names, however, are the names and businesses of possibly lesser known folks. Scott Bond – General Merchandisers (page 46), Rev. Powhatan Bagnell (page 48), and Arthur A. Brown (page 54). All walks and institutions of life are represented; churches, lawyers, prep schools, vocational schools, small shops owners, various publication types (expected, given the role they played in Scott’s job spreading the reports of the conditions of the Black soldiers), and many, many primary public and private school districts. Men and women alike wrote to congratulate Scott on his role. This support extends beyond the Black community, as seen in this letter on behalf of “Porto Rican Tuskegeeans.” The common running closure of these letters being the great benefit to his race that Scott and his position were, a high honor to be sure. A study of each of these individuals, institutions, and entities gives a wonderful lens of the breadth of roles the Black community occupied during WWI. Scott makes an impressive attempt to respond to most letters with thanks and hopes of living up to expectations.

answers thanks to a letter of congratulation
Letter from Emmett J. Scott to Reverend WH Logan, Oct 24, 1917

Upon Scott’s resignation, his OPF shows evidence of white community commentary on his position. Scott wrote to the War Department from his position at Howard University to petition for his receipt of a Distinguished Service Medal. Many wrote in to rally around and also recommend his receiving the honor. Scott notes in his petition, he is one of a very few officers to have served during the war period to have not received the honor. Indeed, there are several civilians like “Hello Girl” Grace Banker (also of the War Department), Bernard Baruch of the War Industries Board, and Fuel Administrator Harry Augustus Garfield. Others, however, were not in support of the acknowledgement, sometimes extending their disapproval to his ever holding such a high ranking and revered position. There are far more letters recommending him for the award. There are some handwritten notes supporting the decision because neither Secretary of War Newton Baker nor his Assistant Benedict Crowell received the medal, as well as the official language of why his service did not qualify. Emmett Scott was not awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

asks to provide information on why Scott was appointed to War Department position
Letter from William Hill, US Senate to Secretary of War Newton Baker
informs he intends to file cliam for Distinguished Service Medal
Letter from Emmet J. Scott to Secretary of War, June 19, 1921

Emmett J. Scott wrote and published American Negro in the World War following his departure from federal service. The text chronicles years of Scott’s experience and knowledge of diplomacy and war as well as first hand accounts from Black soldiers. His extensive and constant work to not only visit Black soldiers and see their experiences first hand, but also to send report to news media for their constant updates to the community created substantial primary sources for Black military experiences during WWI. Scott’s book is one of few to do such in depth and oral history work on the topics. 

Hopefully the intersectionality of these individuals, their institutions, and their support of positions outside theirs will lead researchers to personnel archives, in order to show the web of connections community spins. Historically we can certainly see the groundwork he laid for people like William H. Hastie’s position as an aide to the Secretary of War from 1940 to 1942, where he advocated the equal treatment of African Americans in the United States Army and their unrestricted use in the war effort. The Official Personnel Folder for Emmett J. Scott is in the holdings of the National Archives at St. Louis. Additional administrative records related to Emmett J. Scott’s federal service may be found as part of the Citizen’s Archivist Mission and in the NARA Catalog

All documents are found in: Scott, Emmett J., Official Personnel Folder, Civilian Personnel Files (NAID 3768750), War Department, Records of the Civil Service Commission, RG 146, National Archives at St. Louis.

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