Honoring Zach Brooks, 8/12/18

The band was delighted to participate in an event in Chatfield, Texas to honor World War I soldier Zach Brooks, an African American soldier from the area. The memorial service took place at Chatfield Baptist Church. Mr. Brooks was one of five individuals who died during the war, a rather high number for such a small community. The others included Robert H. Wasson, Jesse B. Jones, Sam Jackson and Charles Johnson. Except for Mr. Johnson, all are buried in Chatfield. The following is Mr. Brooks’ biography, reprinted here with permission, as delivered by Rob Jones of the Hodge-Martin-Chatfield Museum.

Biography of Zack Brooks

Zack Brooks’ service in the First World War has been largely overlooked because he was only in service for 23 days in 1918 before dying of pneumonia in training camp.  However, he is one of 5 young men from Chatfield and the surrounding countryside to pay the supreme price during this cataclysmic war. He died for his country just the same as if he had been killed on the battlefield; yet, very little is known about him as he has no direct descendants and no living relatives were discovered in preparing for his centennial memorial.  What little is known of him comes from military records, the U.S. census records, Navarro County Deed Records, World War I era editions of the Corsicana Daily Sun, and his Death Certificate.

Zack Brooks was born at Chatfield, Texas on 26 October, 1894 to Jeff Brooks and his wife, Harriet Griggs Brooks.  The elder Brooks, although born in Mississippi as slavery was ending, later immigrated to Texas and evidently prospered.  He was neither a share cropper nor farm laborer for another, but a farmer who owned his land.  Zack’s mother, slightly older than her husband, had been born a slave in Grimes County, Texas.  Her father, Nelson, took the surname of his master, Green Griggs, and reared a large family at Chatfield.

Zack was born into a large family also, having at least 10 brothers and sisters, most of them older than he.  Almost certainly, he was named for his mother’s brother, who was about six years her junior.  Just as surely, he worked on his family’s farm, undoubtedly raising cotton and corn, and perhaps other crops.  Whether white or black, all farm families raised their own food with large gardens, chickens and hogs. 

Neither his mother nor father could read nor write, but Zack had learned to read and write by the time he was 15 years of age.  His enumeration on the 1910 U.S. Census notes this and the fact that he was attending school that year.  Public schools were segregated in those days into schools for whites and schools for African-Americans. Most likely, he attended school at Timothy located several miles east of Chatfield at one of the Common Schools of Navarro County for African-Americans.

By the time he had reached adulthood, Zack was described as tall and slender when he registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 with brown eyes, black hair, and no disabilities.  He took his place with 10 million other young men aged 21 to 30 who went to their designated registration sites on that important day.  His father apparently was dead, for he listed his mother as being “solely dependent” on him for support.  Also, a younger brother, Thomas Jefferson Brooks, would have been about 9 and living in the household.

On February 2, 1918, the draft board, known as “Local Board No. 1” of Navarro County issued classifications for both white and black men in anticipation of new induction calls in the spring and summer.   Zack was placed in Class I, making him eligible to be inducted whenever needed to fill the local board’s required number of inductees.  For a year, Zack had remained at home.  Then, in the summer he received his notice that he was being called up. 

The U. S. Armed Forces, as with much of American Society in those days, was segregated.  On June 20, 1918, Army authorities called up many thousands of African Americans not previously called.  On July 18, 1918, Zack was inducted at Corsicana with almost a hundred other black Navarro Countians.  It must have been comforting to be inducted with David Coy, Jeff Coy, Joe Mitchell, and Earsul Neal who all were also from Chatfield.  Boarding the train in Corsicana for Camp Travis in San Antonio, he would join 6,000 other African American Texans from all over the state whose destination was the Alamo City. 

Perhaps, Zack thought of home as the train rumbled southward.  Perhaps, he was excited to think of the adventure that awaited him in the war against the Kaiser.  Perhaps, he passed away the hours with his copy of the Home Reading Course for Citizen-Soldiers.  A War Department publication that was sent in the mail to every man before he entered the service, it would have encouraged his patriotism.  It would have reminded Zack that America had “no taste for warfare and no lust for territory or power” in going to war, but only sought to preserve liberty. 

For a like high purpose, the American people have entered into the present war against the German Government —a government which in our belief misrepresents and misleads the German people. 

Invoking President Wilson’s language, it admonished Zack and other soldiers to remember, “Only by doing so (entering the war) can we make America and the world ‘safe for democracy’.”

The train finally would have brought Zack and the other inductees to Camp Travis in San Antonio.  Named for Col. William Barret Travis, it was one of 16 locations scattered about the country for training and beginning the process of turning civilians into citizen-soldiers for the National Army. It adjoined Fort Sam Houston, on the fort’s northeastern edge.  Having over 5,000 acres in the main section of the Camp, it was truly a city with an average population of more than 34,000 men during the time Zack was there, with streets laid out, water and sewer mains, and 1,449 buildings of every description, including barracks, dining halls, hospital wards, and even movie theatres.  He was assigned to the 165th Depot Brigade, which performed the various functions to keep the Camp running and receive the recruits.  It had both black and white troops, but was segregated by race at the company level.

Upon arrival at Camp Travis, Zack was given a physical examination and inspected for any diseases before being accepted.  Then all the men headed to the showers and were given their uniforms.  The new soldiers had the option of packaging their old civilian clothes for mailing back home or discarding them.  It is unknown which choice Zack made. Over the next 11 days, he hardly had an opportunity to learn the basics of military life or to experience the good or the bad of being a new soldier in Uncle Sam’s army because he became sick.

It is possible that Zack had brought the viruses or bacteria from Chatfield, but this possibility is probably remote.  More than likely, he was one of the early victims of the “Spanish influenza.” Research on nearly 100 year old tissue samples at the National Tissue Repository of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) done in the last few years provides information that could help to understand Zack’s death. It indicates that long before it became the famous pandemic this Spanish flu was circulating around the country, even crossing the Atlantic, and returning to the United States in a mutated form . . . . and killing people.  As many thousands of soldiers were moved about the country and overseas, it had many thousands of hosts to assist in transmission of the disease and in mutation into its most virulent form.

Zack probably came into contact with the flu virus soon after his arrival at Camp Travis as he most likely would have shown symptoms within four to five days of exposure.  Although it is unclear when he first became sick, by July 29 he was admitted to the Base Hospital.  Here segregation by race gave way to segregation by medical condition and treatment so it is probable that his treatment was not inferior to white patients.

Coming from a rural area, he may have had less exposure and, therefore, less resistance to many diseases than other soldiers. However, there is no way to know the general state of his health, medical history or susceptibility.

His illness progressed into pneumonia which was common in flu patients.  At 4:00 AM, on 10 August 1918, Zack died in the Base Hospital.  His Death Certificate lists pneumonia as the cause of death and acute bronchitis as the secondary cause.  On 12 August, his body was shipped by train to Corsicana for burial at Chatfield in what today is known as Memorial Cemetery #1.

Special thanks to Rob Jones.

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