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Black History

State Archives collection of black army chaplain
Published Wednesday, August 14, 2019
by Staff Reports

RALEIGH – The Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina has collected the Elmer P. Gibson Papers. This collection documents the U.S. Army service of pioneering African American chaplain Elmer P. Gibson of Greensboro and Philadelphia.

An early trailblazing black Methodist minister in the Philadelphia, Maryland, and Delaware areas during the 1920s and 1930s, Gibson served in the army from 1941 to 1957, seeing service in World War II and the Korean War. Gibson would become the first African American U.S. Army post chaplain in American history and break additional racial barriers in the military.

The son of a former North Carolina slave turned minister in Greensboro who helped found Bennett College, Elmer Gibson was one of the major army forces for racial integration of the U.S. Armed Forces from 1942-54, and served as an adviser on racial integration to U.S. President Harry S. Truman starting around 1946, having been nominated as an adviser to Truman by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. He would testify before Truman’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, formed for the investigation of racial integration for the military, as well as other federal bodies on race relations in the army.

During WWII, Gibson was the chaplain for the segregated 367th and 364th Infantry Regiments, particularly during the latter’s time stationed in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It was during this period on an isolated island that Gibson began informally serving as an “island chaplain” for all army and army air forces personnel stationed on Adak Island, holding biracial chapel services at a time when the rest of the U.S. military was vehemently segregated. This effort made Gibson one of the earliest military officers to attempt some level of integration of regular, combat-ready, white and black service individuals in the U.S. Army during WWII.

In 1946, Gibson was appointed a major, becoming one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the regular U.S. Army up to that time. When assigned duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1947 as the 365th Infantry Regiment’s chaplain, Gibson worked with several white officers on base in an effort to fully integrate all aspects of the base according to guidelines outlined in President Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981. As early as 1947, Gibson held integrated lakeside baptism services for army soldiers, and began holding chapel services for white servicemen as well. Between 1947-50, Gibson wrote, spoke, testified, and answered questionnaires on the issues of integration and race relations in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Fort Dix would be one of the last two army training division bases to fully integrate in 1951, as part of a plan on which Gibson and two other white officers worked during that year. Lt. Col. Elmer Gibson was appointed on June 7, 1951, as the division and post chaplain for the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Dix, in charge of 23 other white and black army chaplains at the base. He thus became the first black U.S. Army post chaplain in American history.

The bulk of Gibson’s papers are composed of photographs and his military chaplain sermons, which document his personal and religious views during his army career. His photograph collection of over 290 images documents the entire period of racial integration of the U.S. Army from 1942-56, and the efforts he made to bring about that integration.

All of Gibson’s photographs are available for viewing online in an album on the State Archives’ Flickr page (https://bit.ly/2STHzy8).



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