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Honoring Buffalo’s first African-American soldier to die in World War I

Jesse Clipper may have walked past Michigan Avenue and William Street on his way home from a music club, or when he went to work at the American Palace laundry, but no one knows for sure.

What is known is that the young Buffalo musician went to fight in World War I, and was injured several times. Although he lived to see the Armistice signed on Nov. 11, 1918, he never made it home.

Clipper, a private with the 317th Engineer Battalion, died Feb. 21, 1919. He is buried in Oise-Aisne, an American military cemetery in France, according to a May 2, 1968, article in The Buffalo News.

He was the first African-American soldier from Buffalo to die in the war, and a small group from the neighborhood around the park and the American Legion post bearing his name gathered on a sunny and windy Sunday afternoon at the small park off Michigan Avenue to honor Clipper and others who gave their lives for their country.

It was much different in 1938, when 5,000 came out for the dedication of Jesse Clipper Square, said historian and activist Eva Doyle. The area, which now is part of the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor, was thriving then, but it waits for revitalization today.

Members of the post had been successful in petitioning the Common Council for a monument to Clipper and all those who served in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War and World War I. The park was named Jesse Clipper Square, and the monument is “In memory of the valiant service of Negroes in all wars of these United States of America to the Glory of God.”

Even though the memorial has stood at the site for nearly 80 years, not much is known about Clipper, who was one of nearly 380,000 African-Americans to fight in segregated units during World War I. Before he joined the service, Clipper was vice president of Local 533 of the American Federation of Musicians, which was founded in 1917. A year later its members formed a social club, the Colored Musicians Club.

Newspaper accounts say Clipper was wounded and hospitalized for several weeks, then returned to his outfit. Eventually he was gassed and went back to the hospital for a lengthy stay. Before he could be returned stateside, he died.

Seven months after his death, 15 African-American veterans founded Jesse Clipper Post 430, American Legion.

Clipper, said Command Master Sgt. Lawrence Davis of the post, is forever young, like others who sacrificed their lives.

Davis also talked of April 20, 1989, which he called the most horrific day of his life, when he experienced what Clipper’s family had so many years ago. Naval officers knocked on the door and told Davis and his wife that his stepson, Nathaniel Clifford Jones, had died in the explosion aboard the USS Iowa.

Jones’ mother, Ann Davis, a Gold Star Mother, and Davis, laid a wreath with yellow and white flowers at the Clipper memorial for all the sons and daughters who have been taken from their families.

“I have a special interest in getting our youngsters to understand someone has paid the price for our freedom,” Davis said.

Clipper’s first name was misspelled as Jessie on the monument, which faces Michigan Avenue. That decades-old mistake is to be corrected this year, when the granite monument is re-engraved. At one point, the dates of wars from World War II through the Vietnam Conflict were added to the monument. During the refurbishing, the dates of America’s wars since then will be added.

The park is to be renovated as well, with a new flag pole and a garden, said Gail Wells, president of the Copper Town Block Club, who organized this year’s commemoration in cooperation with Janet Smith, a veteran, former commander of Jesse Clipper American Legion Post 430 and current president of Jesse Clipper 430 Unit Auxiliary.

Wells said Eva Doyle, the local historian and activist, issued the challenge last year to keep the memorial going.

“I did issue that challenge,” Doyle said. “It is so important for us to preserve our history.”

Sunday afternoon’s ceremony was one of many throughout the country in observance of this Memorial Day weekend. A complete list of planned local events appeared in Friday’s Buffalo News and is posted on the website.