Irvin Sullivan served his country in World War I, and then returned to his native Hagerstown. He was one of many African Americans from Washington County who fought in the Great War and are largely forgotten today. Next Sunday we’ll commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the war’s end, as well as Veterans Day. Sullivan and his comrades are among those we honor.
Irvin Sullivan was born Irvin Gray, on July 21, 1894. His mother, Anna Taylor, had grown up in a large Hagerstown family, the Crews, surrounded by aunts and uncles. Originally the Crews were a country family, living in the Boonsboro or Williamsport area. Anna’s grandmother Mahala Crew was freed from slavery by Isaac Rowland in 1855, and her children were born in freedom. Around the time of the Civil War, the family moved to Hagerstown, where Irvin was born thirty years after the end of slavery.
Sullivan Family Life
About two years after Anna Taylor bore her son Irvin, she married Robert Sullivan, who moved in with the extended family of Anna’s aunts and siblings living on North Jonathan Street. Robert became a father to Irvin. Irvin took Robert’s surname Sullivan, and three more boys were born to the family.
The whole Sullivan family worked hard. By the time he was fourteen, Irvin was employed as a “servant” in a “private family,” according to Census records, and so did his mother at times. His father Robert Sullivan worked as a day laborer in a coal yard and later as a cart driver. The younger sons also drove carts when they became teenagers.
The Coming of War
But the Great War interrupted this routine life. After America entered the war in 1917, Irvin Sullivan decided to join the army. Perhaps, like so many other young men, he saw it as an adventure; perhaps he enlisted with friends. We can’t know his thoughts, and we know little of his personal experiences. He enlisted on June 23, 1918. Then he trained at Camp Meade near Washington, and in late August he sailed from New York for France.
From August 1918 to November 1919, Sullivan was in France, where he served in the Bonhomme Sector of the Meuse-Argonne front. The National Archives has posted amazing footage of black soldiers on the Meuse-Argonne, which you should watch! Who knows–one of these men could be Irvin Sullivan. The film shows the men working, training, cooking, eating, and relaxing in camp.
A year after the war ended, Sullivan received an honorable discharge and returned to Hagerstown along with many other veterans. The photograph above, of local African-Amerian WWI veterans, may well include him. It shows the men in front of the Good Samaritan Hall, on North Jonathan Street near the Sullivan home. The “Welcome Home” sign suggests that it dates from shortly after the war ended.
Father and Son
After the war, Sullivan lived with his parents and teenage brothers. During this period he worked as a waiter in a restaurant, and then in a barber shop. In the summer of 1927, though, illness struck the Sullivan family. Irvin fell ill in June, and eventually he grew too weak to leave his bed. In July his (step)father Robert also got sick. On August 11, both men died, within half an hour of each other. Their illness was diagnosed as “Bright’s Disease,” an early twentieth-century name for certain kinds of kidney disease or nephritis.
Irvin and Robert had a joint funeral at Bethel A.M.E. Church, and they were buried together at the African-American cemetery in Halfway, southwest of Hagerstown. Anna Sullivan secured a veteran’s headstone for Irvin, and—unusually—Robert’s name was added to the stone. This was probably a bit of local enterprise not approved by the War Department. And nowhere in any surviving record is Robert called Irvin’s stepfather. Robert had truly been a father to Irvin all his life, and in death he was remembered as such.
The cemetery, known at the time as the Halfway Colored Cemetery, was an important place for Hagerstown’s African-American community. It contained hundreds of graves. But a few decades later, most of its land was sold for a suburban housing development. As of 2018, less than an acre of the cemetery survives, completely overgrown. From the street it’s inaccessible and almost invisible. If you venture in, Irvin Sullivan’s gravestone is one of the few that can still be seen.
In the future I’ll be writing a blog post about the Halfway African-American Cemetery.
Sources for this post:
• U.S. Federal Census, 1870-1920
• Maryland in the World War, 1917-1919: Military and Naval Service Records (Baltimore: Maryland War Records Commission, 1933), ii. 2034.
• U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger Lists 1910-1939, Ancestry.com (from Records of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92, National Archives).
• Hagerstown Daily Mail, 12 and 13 Aug. 1927.
• Application for Irvin Sullivan’s veteran gravestone, online at WHILBR.