On April 6, our nation will commemorate the centennial of the declaration of war against Germany in World War I. The story of all that Greenville contributed to the war effort, and how the city was so extensively impacted by the war, is significant.
During the war years, Greenville hosted a U.S. Army cantonment site, Camp Sevier, which ultimately trained 100,000 men. Local churches welcomed soldiers to worship and provided reading rooms with stationery for soldiers to write home.
Furman hosted a Students’ Army Training Corps program on campus, while Greenville Woman’s College (GWC) students sewed mouth guards for the Red Cross and knit sweaters and mittens to help soldiers at Camp Sevier combat the unusually cold temperatures in the winter of 1917–1918. GWC students also enjoyed late-night rendezvous with soldiers, prompting the need for a military policeman to be stationed on campus.
Even local children lent their support; officers at Camp Sevier issued a “patriotic appeal” to Greenville children to bring their “patriotic cats” to the camp to help eradicate a rat problem.
Despite this dedication and effort, however, World War I is not featured prominently in our national or local narrative, and is often depicted as a prequel to the much larger World War II that erupted two decades later.
Today, the legacy of the war persists.
Locally, Greenvillians today benefit from important advances that developed soon after the war, as Greenville quickly evolved into a modern city as a result of the economic progress stimulated by WWI.
The presence of Camp Sevier and the wartime demands placed upon the local textile industry resulted in a financial boom during the war and throughout the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Greenville’s downtown landscape continued to change significantly after a new Beaux Arts-style county courthouse was built on Main Street in 1918. John T. Woodside built the tallest building in the state in 1923, and the Poinsett Hotel replaced the Mansion House Hotel in 1925.
Progressive Era changes brought on by the war introduced better roads, electricity, new businesses, inoculations from disease, improved health care, and an awareness of the importance of literacy. Mill schools benefited significantly from profits generated by the war: Attendance rose over the course of the war even as the student-to-teacher ratio dropped from 66.7 to 50.3. The State Federation of Women’s Clubs successfully campaigned for a statewide literacy campaign, arguing that increasing literacy was a strong defense against German propaganda.
In 1919, South Carolina established the nation’s first state-supported adult education program. These Adult Schools were particularly popular among women in the area’s mill villages, and in 1921, led to the establishment of Opportunity Schools for white textile mill operatives. That same year, the whites-only Greenville Public Library opened on East Coffee Street.
During the war, the area’s demographic and religious diversity increased, reflected by the founding of Greenville’s first Conservative Judaism congregation, Congregation Beth Israel, in 1916, and the establishment of a reform congregation, the Children of Israel, in 1917. Many non-native soldiers who trained here returned after the war, providing a sustained boost to Greenville’s diversity. As Henry Bacon McKoy, who trained at Camp Sevier and returned after the war, later wrote, “Many soldiers had made friends, liked what they saw, and stayed behind.”
In 1917, South Carolina became the third to the last state to require license plates. The city purchased the new public hospital, formalized its operations, and significantly expanded its facilities on Memminger Street and Arlington Avenue. In 1918, a city referendum approved the purchase of the local water company and a public commission was established to oversee its operations.
In the year after the war’s end, Central School, the city’s segregated white high school, added the 11th grade and was renamed Greenville High. The use of aircraft during the war gave way to the “Golden Age of Aviation” in the 1920s, and the City of Greenville established the Greenville Airport Commission and built a Municipal Airport within a decade of the war’s end.
One of the goals of the Progressive Era was national reconciliation from wounds lingering from the Civil War, fought less than 60 years prior, and WWI provided a culminating opportunity for the South to rejoin the national fold. Wartime patriotism prompted elaborate celebrations of the Fourth of July among all Greenvillians, even whites who for decades prior to the war preferred Confederate Memorial Day, deeming Independence Day a holiday celebrated primarily by “Yankees” and African-Americans.
While much progress was made, racial prejudice and a limited view of women’s roles in society persisted despite the involvement of African-Americans and white women in the war effort. Segregation, for example, remained a way of life in Greenville for the next 45 years, and while the state abided by the Women’s Suffrage Amendment beginning in 1920, the S.C. General Assembly did not ratify it until 1969.
These and other stories from Greenville’s experiences during World War I are presented in the exhibit “Over Here, Over There: Greenville in the Great War,” on display through May 31 on the second floor of Furman University’s James B. Duke Library. There is no charge, and complimentary parking is available in the lots on either side of the chapel.
The public is invited to attend the exhibit’s opening reception on Thursday, Feb. 16, from 4–5:30 p.m.
Dr. Courtney L. Tollison Hartness teaches history at Furman University. She can be reached at email@example.com.