Changing Narrative: UW-Stout prof’s new book explores untold stories of African-American soldiers

Abigail Bostwick

rifling THROUGH HISTORY. UW-Stout Professor Le’Trice Donaldson’s book detailing the lives of African-American soldiers from 1870-1920 is available for purchase.
rifling THROUGH HISTORY. UW-Stout Professor Le’Trice Donaldson’s book detailing the lives of African-American soldiers from 1870-1920 is available for purchase.

Le’Trice Donaldson didn’t always know she wanted to be a historian – but when the calling found her, Donaldson didn’t ignore its message.

“It was always something I was drawn to,” the UW-Stout assistant professor of history said. “I’ve always just loved history.”

“I really want to push this, these soldiers had agency. They were not just pawns.” – author Le’Trice Donaldson, on African-Americans in the U.S. military

Donaldson recalled her first childhood connection to the historical. It was at a stone wall in the Bahamas. Her father told her later that this “sacred space” was where enslaved black people were held. History books fascinated Donaldson as a little girl; she’d dive into library books on topics such as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the life of Malcolm X. When it came time for further education, she initially aimed to be a doctor or lawyer.

It wasn’t until her junior year in college, when she was tasked with research assistance work digging through black history archives, Donaldson’s passion for the act struck her. “I realized I loved this, I loved what I was doing,” she said. “I could make a career.”

Donaldson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She then completed her doctorate in history at the University of Memphis. Before UW-Stout, she was a professor at the University of Mississippi, University of Memphis, Medgar Evers College in New York, and the City University of New York-York College.

It was in her teaching, through volumes of texts, Donaldson wondered, where are the black soldiers? “The more I thought about that, the more I thought about the stories that aren’t told,” she said.

Donaldson started writing.

OFFERING A NEW NARRATIVE

Donaldson now has her own history book on the shelves answering many of the questions she had about black military service. Duty Beyond the Battlefield: African American Soldiers Fight for Racial Uplift, Citizenship, and Manhood, 1870-1920 is available for purchase now.

“How did the black soldiers change over time?” questioned Donaldson as she wrote. “That’s what my research is about. I want people to look a little closer.”
Duty Beyond the Battlefield, published by Southern Illinois University Press, works to disprove common stereotypes about African Americans and instead show their heroism, valor, and service; their dedication and pride to their mission; and their pride in themselves as soldiers. These men made up 20 to 30% – and at times as much as 40% – of enlisted soldiers in the military, Donaldson said.

“I really want to push this, these soldiers had agency. They were not just pawns,” Donaldson  said. “They went in with an objective and they were going to get that objective.”

These were the men who established the foundation for the rise of black nationalism that would go on to influence future leaders of the civil rights movement, Donaldson said.

“The story I want to be a part of is this changing narrative,” relayed Donaldson. “How the black soldiers took control. They were all very active in their agency over their lives. … Some of the best soldiers in this service were these men.”

LIFE IN THE CHIPPEWA VALLEY

Donaldson moved to Wisconsin – experiencing her first Midwest winter – late last year.

“Wisconsin is an adjustment,” she said, laughing. She felt welcomed to living small-town life, and found a connection to Menomonie’s Wakanda Park, which shares its name with the nation her favorite comic superhero, Black Panther, hails from. Even though Wakanda is part of Black Panther’s fictional legend, it still gave her a message that this was the location she belonged.

Donaldson was excited by the chance UW-Stout offered her and her career to fully immerse with other departments and students and involve the community in discussion. Donaldson plans to host presentations that incorporate local and national interests with diverse and wide perspectives and topics. She hopes that through these efforts to open the lines of communication, her community becomes more informed and interested in examining the past for a better future.

“That kind of public engagement, I like the opportunity to do that,” Donaldson said. “I want us all to have more conversations. And if you see something I missed, tell me. I just want to change the narrative and talk about history and all that is supporting it. It is a big part of our culture.”

Donaldson also authored A Voyage Through the African American Experience, a textbook for intro to African-American studies. She plans to continue writing. Duty Beyond the Battlefield is available for purchase through Amazon.com – or call up a local bookstore and see if they can order it for you!