20 September 1895 (Grace, Mississippi) – 24 January 1957 (Chicago)
Wagoner in Company “B” of the 329th Labor Battalion which shipped out from Hoboken, NJ on 26 August 1918, Robert W. Kelsey, Company Commander
Willie was one of the younger of seven children (of fourteen born) of John F. and Carrie Richards. The Richards had a farm they owned free in Sharkey, Mississippi that most of the children worked along with their parents. The children also attended school with Willie reporting on a later census that he’d completed high school. His older sister Cora was the exception as she was a public school teacher (and we know this because she’s living with her family in 1910 even though she’s also listed as married and her husband is not listed as living with them).
I mostly wasn’t able to track Willie’s siblings, with a couple exceptions, after 1910, but Willie pops up every few years. At some point prior to August 1918, he appears to have volunteered for service (based on the unit he’s in) in World War I. He held the rank of wagoner in Company B of the 329th Labor Battalion which shipped out from Hoboken, New Jersey, on the 26th of August 1918. A wagoner worked with and drove the horse-drawn vehicles used for various functions such as supply, escort, and ambulances. The driver’s duties encompassed all aspects of the care of animals and responsibility for loading, transporting, and unloading any cargo.
While I wasn’t able to find any other details of his service, other records confirm that Willie was honorably discharged and returned home to Mississippi by 1920 where we find him living with his parents, his younger brother Jordan, and a woman who might be his aunt-by-marriage or sister-in-law but who was about his same age. The next-door farm belonged to Willie’s same-aged brother James (so possibly they were twins) who was married and had a daughter named Carrie, after their mother.
In 1930, Willie had gone to Illinois and was staying at the National Soldiers Home in Danville which was both a medical facility and a planned community for veterans which included housing, veteran-run shops, community halls, a school, library, and a chapel. The Danville Branch is on the US National Register of Historic Places.
According to the National Archives website, the soldiers’ homes (originally called asylums) were established in the wake of the Civil War as housing and long-term care for totally disabled Union officers and soldiers. The homes were open to Black veterans and those who served were afforded the same privileges of admission as white veterans, though the housing was segregated and meals were at separate tables. In 1930, the network of soldiers’ homes became part of the establishment of the VA.
Based on this information, we can surmise that Willie had been injured in the war but as he returned to farming by the next census, it’s unclear what the nature of his injury was. “Totally disabled” in the context of the homes seems to have included the veteran having suffered something like a loss of a limb or an eye and not only the most extreme injuries that would render a person unable to live independently. Veterans could both commit and discharge themselves at these homes, too, so there’s no way to surmise why Willie chose to live there 10+ years after the war. Though I have to say the Danville facility sounds as if it was really nice. The homes operated on a military concept with duties, day passes, uniforms, and marching included in the routine.
On the 1930 census, Willie indicated that he was married. It doesn’t appear from the records that families lived on the grounds with the veterans, but he does list three people in his household (possibly fellow soldiers in some small barracks like scenario). Perhaps if he was living in the planned community part, it had facilities for families, but it’s beyond the scope of this post for me to dig into that.
A more confusing piece of info or perhaps intriguing is that on this census, Willie listed the age at which he was first married as 18 but on the 1920 census when he’s back home from the war and with his parents, he listed himself as single (rather than widowed or divorced). There’s always the possibility of confusion or transcription error (ALWAYS we’ve learned) but it’s an interesting piece of information.
In 1940, he had returned to Louisiana and was either living on the family farm which was listed as being part of Beat 5 on the 1910 and 1920 censuses or on his own nearby farm (Beat 4 on the 1940 census). According to an explanation I found online, a Beat in the context of the census, is a word once used in Mississippi roughly equivalent to precinct and derived from “police beat” which… ew.
Willie and Sealy Heard, his apparent wife, are the only ones listed at his home. Both are listed as married but it almost looks as if “wife” was erased and “lodger” written in its place. As they do not share a last name, it’s possible they aren’t married, and I can’t find any further records for them that tie them together. This census has a question about where one was five years prior: Willie was in Chicago and Sealy was in Georgia. If they were married, it’s possible they were split up while Willie was at Danville, but that’s just speculation and it’s another intriguing mystery about Willie’s marital status and who his wife or wives really were.
From there, Willie disappears from the public record until his death in Chicago seventeen years later. His ties to Illinois were not only to Danville as his younger brother Jordan lived in Chicago, working as a welder and auto mechanic, in 1942 when Jordan filled out his WWII draft card. It’s possible that other members of the Richards family had also participated in the Great Migration and their presence in Chicago brought Willie back for a time before his death.
Willie is buried alone so if he and Sealy were married, it’s unclear where she ended up. He is interred right next to the gravesite of a notable person, and I was wondering if there was some tie there, but there doesn’t seem to have been.
RIP Wagoner Richards and thank you for your service.
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