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Washington was born in Aiken County, South Carolina on August 6, 1890. In the 1900 Census, he is listed as a 10-year-old farm laborer in Windsor Township, Aiken County, with his mother, Sarah, age 45, as head of household. Also listed are two older siblings, Sadie (age 15) and Junius (age 14) and two younger ones, Ophelia (age 7) and Arlie (age 2).
1900 Census, South Carolina, Aiken County, Windsor Township.
1910 Census, Florida, Polk County, Lakeland.
By 1910, Washington, his mother Sarah, and sister Ophelia had moved to Lakeland, Florida, some 400 miles south of Windsor, where they resided with an older sister, Emma, and her husband, Francis Lewis, a 30-year-old chipper at a turpentine mill. Esley’s occupation is listed as doing “Odd Jobs.” It is not known how long he continued doing odd jobs and remained in the Lakeland area. There is no other record of him after this date until he shows up in Baltimore, Maryland.
WWI Draft Registration, Baltimore, Md, Esley W. Washington.
When Washington registered for the draft at Baltimore, Maryland, on June 5, 1917, he was an “unemployed laborer.” He was inducted into the Army at Baltimore on June 29, 1918 and initially assigned to Co A, 538th Engineer Service Battalion, an all-black labor unit organized at Camp Meade, Maryland. Washington held the rank of PFC when the 538th shipped to France on August 26, 1918. He was reduced in rank to Private on September 28, 1918.
Black engineer forces in the AEF during the Great War, which numbered nearly 175,000, were responsible for, among other things, building roads (including 1,035 miles of railroad track) and hospitals, providing proper sewage drainage at camps and cantonments, constructing electric power plants, cutting down trees, maintaining and repairing their own equipment, digging trenches, putting up barbed wire (sometimes under enemy fire), making docks and building bridges and – if the situation called for it – picking up their rifles and fighting as infantry.
When asked to reflect on his service overseas, James Crawley of the 538th said that he was as “patriotic as any man” but described his overseas experience as “deplorable.” He said that he “worked all the time [but] felt as if my country did not appreciate my service as a true American.” Although he continued to believe in “the principles for which we fought” he thought African Americans had “given all to gain for everyone except ourselves.” A corporal who served in Washington’s same company later composed “The Plea of the Colored Soldiers.”
Located in the W. E. B. Du Bois papers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, “The Plea” by Corporal Alexander voiced concerns of African American soldiers who questioned what they were fighting for in France. The ninth stanza firmly answers: “Freedom is what we Fought for and Died,” though it is what “our Race have been denied” at home where Jim Crow laws still segregate blacks from whites. Alexander asked: Will not America grant us our freedom now that we have answered her call to serve in uniform?
In January 1919, the 538th Engineers was converted to 856th Company, Transportation Corps. The Transportation Corps consisted of stevedore companies responsible for loading and unloading the vast war materials that arrived at the ports of Brest, St. Nazaire, Bordeaux, Havre, and Marseilles. Each company had 250 African American soldiers and three white officers.
Washington’s deployment in France ended on June 11, 1919, when he was shipped to Camp Stuart, Newport News, Virginia, from St. Nazaire onboard the US troopship De Kalb. Listed among the 125 “Sick and Wounded,” Private Washington was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, no doubt the effects from exposure to influenza.
Private Washington listed among the “Sick and Wounded” aboard the De Kalb.
1920 Census, Florida, DeSoto County, Carlstrom Field.
On January 19, 1920, Washington was a “Hangarman” for the U.S. Army at Carlstrom Field, near Arcadia, De Soto County, Florida.
Soon afterwards, however, he was admitted to U.S. Army General Hospital No. 19, in Oteen (Azalea), North Carolina, about 7 miles from Asheville. Here the army had constructed a large tuberculosis hospital consisting of over 100 frame buildings with a capacity of more than 1,500 beds. A month prior to Washington’s arrival, the Army hospital was nearly at full capacity, with almost 1250 patients.
It was here, in a black-only ward, that Private Esley W. Washington died, on March 19, 1920. His death certificate lists his cause of death as pulmonary tuberculosis, undoubtedly brought on by influenza.
Washington’s North Carolina death certificate indicates that he had suffered from tuberculosis since May 1919 when he was in France.
The Army notified Ophelia Bryant, who lived at 602 West Orange Street, Lakeland, Florida, of her brother’s death. He was buried in Mulberry, Florida.