The Strawther Family Legacy – Urbana Daily Citizen
Editor’s note: The Urbana Black Heritage Festival will be held at Barbara Howell Park on June 18 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 213 E. Market St. This article is the latest in a series of heritage stories leading up to the festival.
Located beyond the city limits of Urbana, James and Bessie Strawther provided the majority of the greater community’s strawberry harvest. Jim Strawther was known as the “Strawberry King” throughout Ohio.
The Ohio State University Department of Horticulture often asked him to speak and lecture about his growing talents. The Strawthers have hired local young people to work in their fields to meet the demand for strawberries from Urbana and the surrounding area.
Bessie Strawther was born in 1866 in Cynthiana, Kentucky. In 1886, Bessie had come to Urbana and met the “Strawberry King” whom she had married that year.
The couple would have seven children including five sons and two daughters. Among the Strawthers’ children was Henry Strawther who served in the First World War. At the time, African American soldiers were segregated and were often relegated to laborious duties such as serving as drivers, cooks, and construction workers. However, Henry Strawther would be an exception.
Several African-American infantrymen from the United States were assigned to reinforce the French army on the front lines against the Germans. Henry Strawther would serve with the 372nd Infantry, 93rd Division, the 93rd being separated.
The infantry was made up of National Guard servicemen from several different states, including Ohio. The division fought in the key campaigns of Meuse-Argonne, Lorraine and Alsace. Henry Strawther’s division was nicknamed the “blue helmets” or “blue helmets” in French, for the blue helmets they wore.
On October 6, 1918, Private Henry Strawther was killed in the line of duty on the front lines during a German artillery attack. He was buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery in France.
After World War I, a group of local African-American veterans established Henry Strawther Legion Post 203 in 1919. In 1924, the post’s Ladies Auxiliary was also established. The Henry Strawther Post would become a mainstay of the African-American community located for several years in the 100 block of East Market Street. The building no longer exists and was located on the site of what is now a city parking lot across from the Urbana Fire Department. The Ladies Strawther Auxiliary also organized the first African American Boy Scout troop in the county.
As a Gold Star mother, Bessie Strawther was invited to participate in a program offered by the US government to travel to Europe to visit her son’s grave. Mothers and wives of deceased soldiers were provided with transportation, accommodation and meals as part of the trip, but there was a problem.
When Bessie Strawther arrived in New York in 1930 for the ocean voyage to France, 12 years after her son’s death, she realized that the Gold Star women were separated throughout the experience. The white women traveled on luxury liners and stayed and dined in the finest restaurants and hotels in central Paris. Black women were transported on modernized freighters and housed and dined in second-rate accommodation on the outskirts of the French capital.
Bessie Strawther once wrote that while she had long wanted to see her son’s final resting place, she also did not want to discredit his race. She had two options. Take the trip and be complicit in the unequal treatment of white and black Gold Star women or return to Urbana. She opted for the latter and returned home in protest.
Bessie Strawther will eventually make the trip to France in 1933 and finally stand at the grave of her son who gave his life in the name of democracy and freedom. Upon her return to Urbana, she noticed that the French people she met on her trip were extremely kind, friendly and grateful for her son’s service and welcomed her with open arms.
Bessie Strawther celebrated her 100th birthday in 1966. She was residing with her son Warren Strawther at 239 East Reynolds Street at the time. Bessie Strawther’s segregated experience as Gold Star Mother to Europe was described in a 2017 Washington Post article. Bessie Strawther died in 1969 aged 103 and is buried in Oak Dale Cemetery next to her husband, James, the ‘Strawberry King’.
The circa 1930 passport photo of Bessie Strawther.
Pictured is the grave of Henry Strawther at the Meuse-Argonne American War Cemetery in France.
Article from the Urbana Black Heritage Festival, www.urbanaheritagefestival.org and by email at [email protected]