Photograph of a group of African Army soldiers from the 364th Infantry Regiment (Colored), 92nd Infantry Division, posing with heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (second from left, foreground) during his troop morale visit to the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, in the winter of 1944-1945 during World War II. Pictured with Louis is 1st Lt. Elmer P. Gibson (second from right, foreground), chaplain of the 364th Infantry Regiment [circa 1944]. Click here to download a high-resolution version of this image.
The Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina is excited to announce the availability for researchers of the Elmer P. Gibson Papers (MMP 9). This collection documents the U.S. Army service of pioneering African American chaplain, Elmer P. Gibson of Greensboro, N.C., and Philadelphia, PA.
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 to 1954, and served as an advisor on racial integration to U.S. President Harry S. Truman starting around 1946, having been nominated as an advisor 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, Chaplain 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 and 1950, 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 African American U.S. Army post chaplain in American history.
During the Korean War, Gibson served from 1952 to 1953 in Korea as assistant corps chaplain of the U.S. Army X (Tenth) Corps. He became the first African American assistant or full corps U.S. Army chaplain in American history. Gibson would become the division chaplain for the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in 1953 in Korea, becoming the first African American Army chaplain of a regular, non-segregated combat division in history. For his Korean War service, Gibson received the Bronze Star Medal. After retiring from the Army in 1957, now Dr. Elmer Gibson would become the seventh president of the HBCU Morristown College in Morristown, TN in 1959 until his retirement in 1969.
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 to 1956, and the efforts he made to bring about that integration. The collection features photographs of segregated African American Army units in chapel and baptismal services, of integrated chapel services, and of meetings with prominent men such as boxer Joe Louis in Alaska and the Reverend Billy Graham in Korea.
Gibson also collected photographs showing U.S. Armed Forces military chapel services around the world from WWII through the 1950s, documenting the expansion and development of the role of the chaplain in the military—including Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant chaplains and services.
Some of Gibson’s surviving documents relate to his role in the U.S. military’s racial integration, including his answers to U.S. Army racial integration questionnaires and his notes on official Army racial policies around WWII. The collection includes a small surviving collection of original sheet music and lyrics for religious hymns and songs, composed and occasionally published by Elmer Gibson, who enjoyed playing the organ during his church services.
The Elmer P. Gibson Papers help document one of the unsung heroes of the American civil rights movement of the twentieth century, and one of the most important forces for racial integration of the U.S. military. All of Gibson’s photographs are available for viewing online in an album on the State Archives’ Flickr page.
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