Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day: Remembering Oswald Durant and the 371st


Oswald Davidson Durant was born in 1895 in a community called Paxville just outside of Sumter, South Carolina. The son of a farmer and postmaster who had likely been born into slavery, Oswald attended Morris College in Sumter. He was working as a waiter at a hotel called The Oakes north of Pittsburgh in June 1917 when he completed this draft card.


Oswald was drafted to serve in the First World War and assigned to the 371st Infantry in the still segregated U.S. Army. The 371st had white officers and African American draftees, the majority of whom were from South Carolina.

By the time they sailed for Europe in April 1918, Oswald had been promoted to the rank of sergeant. Sergeant Durant and nearly 3,000 other members of the 371st were brigaded under the French and were issued French rations and equipment, including the distinctive French combat helmet, which would become their symbolic shoulder patch.

During their service with the French 157th Division, these brave African American draftees earned the respect of the French military, as well as many white U.S. officers. The regiment saw extensive combat and lost a third of its men, earning the respect of the French who honored them with the Croix de Guerre. They returned home in early 1919.


Officers commissioned this bronze commemorative medallion, which reflects the service and heritage of the brave men who served with the 371st.


After the war, Durant enrolled at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and became an honor student. He earned his medical degree in 1926 and set up practice in Alexandria. In 1942 he completed this draft card but was not called to serve.


Dr. Durant practiced for more than 25 years in Alexandria before his death in 1953. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


 An Alexandria community center housed in a former USO center that was only open to white American service members during World War II has been named in Dr. Durant’s honor.


 To learn more about the 371st, check out this History Detectives segment.

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