Today’s post comes from John P. Blair with the National Archives History Office.
Ever since President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the Bicentennial of the United States in 1976, each February brings forth a celebration of the history and accomplishments of notable African Americans. However, there are hundreds of thousands of other African Americans who have served our nation, contributed to our society, and who during their lifetimes influenced hundreds of others.
Black History Month is for them too.
The records of the National Archives and Records Administration reveal the lives of many relatively obscure African Americans—if one knows where to look.
For instance, there is Floyd Henry Crumbly. Crumbly was a successful businessman in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and a civic and social leader who rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army to lead troops when our nation called.
Born in Rome, Georgia, on May 10, 1855, Crumbly’s father, Robert Crumbly, was a slave, but his mother, Mariah Connally, was a free woman of color. Crumbly later wrote his mother, although free born, “under the custom of the times was practically a slave having married a slave man.”
During the American Civil War, Crumbly and his mother left for Nashville, but he returned to Georgia after she died of smallpox in 1869.
Crumbly attended the school in La Grange, GA, administered by the Freedmen’s Aid Society’s Reverend George Standing and then worked as a laborer to help rebuild war-scarred Atlanta. On November 16, 1876, Crumbly enlisted as a private in Company I, 10th U.S. Cavalry and was ordered to Fort Richardson, Texas.
As a member of one of the famed “Buffalo Soldier” cavalry regiments, Crumbly spent much of his time in the field in west Texas and north into present-day Oklahoma. He received promotions to corporal in June 1877 and sergeant the following January.
Crumbly participated in campaigns against the Northern Cheyenne in 1878–79 and the Apache Chief Victorio in 1880. More importantly, however, Crumbly continued his education and developed excellent administrative skills, serving as company clerk and later, as post sergeant major at Fort Stockton, Texas.
Following his discharge in 1881, Crumbly returned to Atlanta, where he worked for years as a grocery clerk before striking out on his own. He built a successful mercantile business, eventually owning the building where his store was located.
Crumbly founded the Negro Historical Society of Atlanta, served as the director of the Negro Department at the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, and worked as the secretary of the Georgia Real Estate Loan and Trust Company. He received an appointment from the Governor of Georgia to serve as adjutant on the staff of Lt. Colonel Thomas Grant, an African American commanding the city’s black state militia battalion.
Following Grant’s resignation, Crumbly, elected by the officers of the battalion and commissioned by the governor, commanded this same military organization from 1892 to 1898.
With the explosion of the USS Maine in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, and America’s war with Spain, Crumbly offered the services of his battalion to the U.S. Secretary of War. Although not accepted, Crumbly, ever-persistent, remained undaunted.
When the War Department began recruiting regiments comprised of African Americans from the South because many erroneously believed these men were immune to tropical diseases, Crumbly applied and obtained a commission as a first lieutenant in the 10th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, an “Immune” regiment. He served from July 1, 1898, to March 8, 1899.
Upon his discharge, Crumbly immediately sought a second commission, and through his effective network of supporters, including two former Georgia state governors, Booker T. Washington, and others, he received his commission as a captain in the all-black 49th U.S. Volunteer Infantry regiment on September 9, 1899. After recruiting men for his company, he traveled with them to the Philippine Islands.
Crumbly commanded over 100 men at various posts and even served as the judge of the municipal court for three months at Paranque, just south of Manila. While there, he studied Spanish and the native language of Tagalog. He also suffered from dysentery and malaria.
Crumbly led 50 men in a successful combat engagement against a superior force at Santa Catalina, Luzon, before he was honorably discharged on June 30, 1901. He returned to Georgia before moving to Los Angeles, California in 1903.
His service to our nation took its toll on Crumbly’s health. He suffered from the effects of malaria and had difficulty obtaining a pension. Yet, even with his health problems, Crumbly continued his civic involvement in Los Angeles, and when war loomed in 1916 and 1917, and despite his advanced age, volunteered for whatever he could to serve our nation once again.
In 1922 Crumbly arrived at the National Military Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Sawtelle, California. He died there on November 14, 1929, and is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
Crumbly’s life story, while not widely known, remains a symbol of inspiration. An effective leader in both military and civilian life, Crumbly valued knowledge and learning.
His personal contacts revealed that he was widely respected, and his hard work in made him accomplished in business, in civic affairs, and in the military despite the discrimination and prejudice of his times. His life served as an example to all those who knew him, and there is no doubt that it had an impact upon them. Today, it should have an impact on all of us.
Visit the National Archives website for more information on our resources related to African American History.