(upbeat music) Up next on "Nebraska Stories," noteworthy Nebraskans.
First, the real life inspiration for Willa Cather's "My Antonia," one of the great Black photographers of the 20th Century, a look back at the life of General John J. Pershing, and an Omaha woman who became a hero to French soldiers during World War I.
(upbeat music) (guitar music) (guitar music) (upbeat music) (upbeat music) (upbeat music) (jazzy piano music) DOUG KEISTER: You think of photographs and things like that as being so static.
DOUG: But they're not.
I mean this things, 100 years after they're taken have this whole life to them.
NARRATOR: For more than 50 years, Doug Keister has held the key to an American treasure.
DOUG: It just makes a great natural sort of picture.
NARRATOR: In 1965, he bought a box of glass plate negatives from a good friend for only 10 dollars.
When he put them up to the light, what he saw was a forgotten world, frozen in time.
Lincoln, Nebraska in the early 1900's.
DOUG: Originally, they thought that a guy by the name of Earl McWilliams had taken them because the family knew that one of their relatives, Earl McWilliams, had worked in a photo studio, but further research showed that it was actually a guy named John Johnson.
We found his signature on stuff and Earl McWilliams was a photographic assistant.
NARRATOR: One of the negatives proved especially interesting.
DOUG: When I scanned it, I realized that back here is John Johnson.
That's the photographer.
MAN: My dad used to work in that post office.
DOUG: Oh okay.
MAN: Yeah, we used to come down there.
On 9th Street, there was a, well we called it The Tavern and that's where a lot of the black folks went in the evenings and we would park down there when we were waiting to pick up my dad sometimes.
DOUG: This is Clyde Malone, the Malone Center.
NARRATOR: A son of slaves, John Johnson lived his whole life in Lincoln.
He made a living as a manual laborer, but once he picked up a box camera, he found his passion.
DOUG: When you look at John Johnson's photographs, the lighting, or him using the existing light in a certain way of positioning people and turning them a certain way so they're not in bright sun so you get this softer light, more even skin tones, these are not snapshots.
This is a guy that knew how to do it.
So you see the environment that people are in.
It's sort of like walking into somebody's life.
This is a snapshot of a particular time in America.
It's the old thing of it.
You know, a picture's worth a thousand words and it really is in some of these cases.
There are so many stories around the edges and they keep unfolding.
There's more and more information all the time.
There's all these pictures of people with books.
DOUG: And but there, she's holding this out and this was in the show in Chico, California and my cousin saw it and I've seen this for 50 years and I always wondered why he got it right away.
Why is she holding the book out?
WOMAN: To show that her hairstyle is similar?
DOUG: You got it!
Yeah, so she is saying, you know, the pose.
She's got a little more attitude, but the hairstyle.
She's saying I'm every bit as good as that woman.
(jazzy music) DOUG: One of the interesting things about John Johnson was that he took pictures of African Americans and immigrants together and sometimes separately, but he was documenting this part of Lincoln, Nebraska that was integrated.
What was going on in America at the beginning of the 20th century was something called the New Negro Movement.
And it was about education and about equality and about fighting against Jim Crow Laws and the Ku Klux Klan.
If you look at the photographs, they are ennobling.
These are majestic people.
He is showing them as educated people.
Many many many of the photographs have people reading.
You see them reading books, you see them reading the Bible, you should see them displaying a book.
It's all about literacy.
I paired this with one of my favorite Oprah Winfrey quotes and it says "Books were my pass to personal freedom.
"I learned to read at age three and soon discovered "there was a whole world to conquer "that went beyond our farm in Mississippi."
My personal opinion, this photograph and this quote should be in every school and every library in America.
(jazzy piano music) DOUG: I've asked many many people in my field and the Smithsonian is there anything else like this?
They say, "Nope, nothing, nothing like this "as a body of work."
And so it's part of my job and others that are trying to do this to elevate him to be one of the great photographers, one of the great African American photographers for sure of the 20th century, but one of the great photographers of the 20th century.
He just is.
(jazzy piano music) (piano music) NARRATOR: A century ago, World War I raged in Europe.
Historians say that war made the US a global super power.
General John J. Pershing, a man with strong Nebraska ties, commanded the US troops to help to end the bloody fighting.
(singing) November 11th, 1918, America and the world celebrated an end to World War I. NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: 3,000 miles from home, an American army is fighting for you.
NARRATOR: Four years of fighting claimed millions of lives before US troops, lead by General John J. Pershing, arrived in France.
(early 1900s music) They were called the American Expeditionary Forces and joined the French and British to turn the battle tide against the German military.
In 18 months General Pershing helped to transform 220,000 US troops into a fighting force of 4 million.
JIM LACY: He should be thought of as a quintessential American man, right place, right time.
NARRATOR: General Pershing became the only acting six star general in US history.
Today though his name is recognized by few people, even in Nebraska, where an important part of Pershing's life unfolded.
(banjo music) NARRATOR: In 1891 the 31 year old Pershing thought seriously about leaving the Army after four years in the Sixth Calvary.
He had commanded frontier outposts in the Indian War, and there seemed to be few promotional opportunities left for First Lieutenant Pershing.
RICHARD FAULKNER: So after times, chasing Native Americans in Arizona and other places, he does get a chance to take a break.
NARRATOR: Pershing's break was a transfer to the University of Nebraska.
TIM McNEESE: Here in Lincoln he has a sense of having arrived.
NARRATOR: Pershing taught military science at the University of Nebraska, and began work on a law degree.
Most importantly Pershing took charge of the schools failing military training program.
And it's 100 cadets.
McNEESE: Underrated, secondhand, nobody gave two hoots about the program.
NARRATOR: Under Pershing's command, McNeese says, things quickly changed.
Pershing instilled something in his cadets that they hadn't had before, it was discipline.
McNEESE: Better button up that coat, why are your shoes not polished, and all these farm boys were kinda, wait, wait, wait, who's this guy?
NARRATOR: Within a year 350 students joined Pershing's UNL cadet core, and by 1892 Pershing's cadets were ready to be tested in a national military drill competition.
UNL's elite cadet squad competed in Omaha against veteran teams from across the country.
When it was announced that Pershing's UNL cadets had won their division, hundreds of UNL students and faculty climbed over the fence and charged the parade field to celebrate.
And they were lead by UNL chancellor James Canfield.
McNEESE: Well, even the chancellor of the University, yeah, Chancellor Canfield who is not a small man, is climbing over this eight foot tall fence.
NARRATOR: In 1895, Pershing's time at UNL came to an end.
In honor of their recently departed lieutenant, UNL's elite drill team renamed itself, Pershing's Rifles.
Today units like them across the country are known as the National Society of Pershing Rifles.
In the decades that followed, Pershing commanded US troops in the Spanish American War.
In the Philippines he was promoted to the rank of one star General.
Now married with a wife and four children, Pershing's life seemed complete until tragedy struck in 1915.
Pershing's wife Frankie, and their three young daughters died in a San Francisco fire.
The fires only survivor was Pershing's five year old son Warren.
Pershing privately poured his crushing sorrow into the command of 10,000 US troops sent to hunt Mexican revolutionary General Francisco Pancho Villa.
Pershing's son Warren, now the most important person in the General's life, lived in Lincoln Nebraska with Pershing's two sisters.
SANDY PERSHING: October 31, 1916, my dear little boy.
NARRATOR: Recently Pershing's granddaughter-in-law read a 1916 letter the General wrote from Mexico to his son in Lincoln.
SANDY PERSHING: This small red flag with one white star in the center is the flag that has been in front of your poppa's tent for several months.
As I now must have two stars in my flag, I am sending you this one to keep as a souvenir.
With it goes all the love of my soul.
May God keep you and help you to be a good and great man.
NARRATOR: A year later, Pershing would command American troops in World War I. NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Only the hardest blows can win against the enemy we are fighting.
NARRATOR: America's sacrifices in the Great War were enormous.
More than 323,000 US troops died, were wounded, or went missing.
America's victory though, gave the US global recognition as a leader of the free world.
And a super power with a modern military.
A turning point in John Pershing's long journey, that once lead through Nebraska.
CHRISTOPHER CAPOZOLLA: If you look at the Army that Pershing left behind, it has been turned into a modern force, with a large standing Army.
Pershing wasn't the only architect of that, but he was the most important person to execute that transformation.
♪ ♪ >> SCOTT WILSON: When the war broke out, the safest place in the world would have been at an all-girls school in Davenport, Iowa.
Marion Crandell volunteered to go to France and she did it simply because she loved the French people.
For her to volunteer to go into that, and we know that the Western Front of 1918 was maybe the worst place on earth to be, she wanted to go there.
>> NARRATOR: Marion Crandell was the first American woman to be killed in active service in World War One.
Crandell graduated from Omaha High School, now known as Central High.
She then went on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, before returning to the States to teach at an all-girls school in Davenport, Iowa.
Nearly a century later, her story was dangerously close to being forgotten.
That is, until Central High teacher Scott Wilson's annual history project brought her story back to life.
>> WILSON: The students drew names out of a hat.
And one of my students, Peter Bock, who is in the Central High class of 2010, a senior that year, picked the name, Marion G. Crandell, a name that's clearly on our World War I Memorial.
And Peter will tell you that he struggled.
He wrote to the government, wrote to the archives, and was really kind of drawing a blank in his initial research.
He got a tip from a classmate - she got ahold of Peter and said, "Peter, I think Marion is a woman.
And I think she was a volunteer for the Allied Forces in France, in World War I."
>> NARRATOR: Peter arranged to meet with a local Davenport historian.
>> WILSON: He got into the special collections archive at the Davenport Library, and he went to work.
The project that he created out of his research really put a light on this woman's contribution to the war effort, and really her life story, which was really fascinating.
>> NARRATOR: In February of 1918, Crandell shipped off to France to volunteer with the YMCA.
>> WILSON: The women who volunteered through the YMCA did a number of things such as the hot chocolate, lemonade.
Basically, their purpose was to be a comforting presence for soldiers who had been at the front and had really been in the muck and mire of the trenches of the Western Front.
It's in this German offensive of the spring of 1918 in which Marion Crandell was killed.
While they were evacuating the house that she was in, Marion ordered the rest of her team out, and she was the last one in the hut and was packing up the supplies when a German artillery shell came through the building, it detonated, and fatally wounded her.
They took her to our nearby hospital and a few hours later, she died.
And at that moment, she became the first American woman killed at the front in World War I.
>> NARRATOR: Crandell was given a soldier's burial at Sainte-Menehould, the first woman to be buried in the cemetery among 6,000 French soldiers, a distinct honor.
Her body was later moved to the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery in Northern France, the largest American cemetery in Europe.
>> WILSON: I'm sure that the French were impressed by a woman from the United States who had volunteered, had no obligation to be there.
She impressed all of her colleagues.
At her memorial service, just about everyone who commented, commented on her energy, her enthusiasm, her positive attitude.
And you can imagine for the French soldiers who are coming off the line to have someone like Marion Crandell and her colleagues around them was a huge benefit.
And that had to make an impression on all those soldiers that she saw.
And when she died, the respect that they gave to Marion in her funeral service demonstrates the kind of respect that they had for her in her short time as a volunteer at the front.
>> NARRATOR: While Crandell made an impression on the French soldiers of World War I, her story was largely unknown, even to historians.
>> WILSON: She at the beginning of the year was a name.
By the time Peter was done, she was a real person, who had this extraordinary story of sacrifice and volunteering.
Peter ended up going to the University of Nebraska and while he was there, he and I worked on a nomination for Marion Crandell to the Central High School Hall of Fame.
And the very next year, she went into our Hall of Fame, and Peter accepted the award.
We have started taking our Central High students to Europe to study the World War I and World War II battlefields.
In 2018, we decided to add a visit to Marion Crandell's grave site at Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.
Our students laid purple and white flowers at her grave.
And that was really special to see students, literally a hundred years after she died, visiting her grave.
And I think for those students, I don't want to speak for them, but I think for those students, that was really felt, the long history of their school that they are now a part of, as well.
It's easy to talk about World War I and World War II from a male perspective.
The soldiers, the fighting, the generals, the political leaders in those cases tended to be all men.
And in this case, it's great to introduce and include stories like Marion.
Women, of course, were integral parts of all of that history and with Marion's example, we get a chance to show that women were every bit engaged.
They were at the front, in Marion's case, and it allows us to kind of enrich the story of the First World War, by including some of our Central High history into that.
♪ ♪ (upbeat music) (upbeat music) Watch more "Nebraska Stories" on our website, Facebook and YouTube.
(upbeat music) "Nebraska Stories" is funded in part by the Margaret and Martha Thomas Foundation, and Humanities Nebraska, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment.
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