Elmer Petticord Gibson, an African American Army chaplain from Greensboro, played a key role in integrating the military.
Though President Harry S. Truman officially ordered desegregating the military in 1948, implementation was slow.
Gibson testified about racial integration before the Congressional Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces.
Family records in the State Archives indicate former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt personally recommended Gibson’s appearance before this committee, better known as the Fahy Committee.
That committee was in place until 1950 and produced the report “Freedom to Serve: Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services,” which concluded that, contrary to some arguments at the time, inequality had contributed to inefficiency.
“The Committee is convinced that a policy of equality of treatment and opportunity will make for a better Army, Navy, and Air Force,” the report said. “It is right and just. It will strengthen the nation.”
Gibson, who died in 1994, was the grandson of Guilford County slaves. He grew up on Greensboro’s McCulloch Street and graduated from Bennett College High School.
His father, Lewis Gibson, was also a pastor and charter trustee of Bennett College.
Between 1947 and 1950, Gibson wrote, spoke, testified and answered questionnaires on the issues of integration and race relations in the U.S. Armed Forces, according to the State Archives of North Carolina.
The archives show Gibson’s responses to a U.S. Army questionnaire entitled “Employment of Negro Manpower.”
Asked if “colored and white troops should be integrated completely — that is, assigned to units without regard to color,” Gibson wrote:
“No. Should this be done without careful thought and consideration in the regards to the selection of both officers and enlisted men, and without regard to locality, I am apprehensive as to the good it would do. It perhaps would do more harm than good to the proposed policy of desegregation at this time. If complete integration is to be successfully achieved, it should be gradual and by evolution rather than revolution.”
In 1964, Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement appointed Gibson to the state’s first Committee on Human Relations. Gov. Buford Ellington reappointed Gibson, and he served as president of the committee in 1967. In 1968, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Gibson was licensed to preach at the age of 16 by St. Matthews Methodist Episcopal Church in Greensboro. Over his lifetime, he bi-vocationally served as pastor for numerous churches over the country.
He had the opportunity to preach alongside the Rev. Billy Graham during Christmas services in Korea in 1952.
During his 16-year Army career, spanning World War II and the Korean War, Gibson was chaplain for four regiments — the 5th Provisional Training Regiment, and the 364th, 365th and 367th Infantry Regiments.
He is also served as chaplain for three different divisions — the 2nd, 9th, and 44th Infantry Divisions — and supervised 23 chaplains at Fort Dix.
Gibson served on the Army Corps (two or more divisions) level in Korea, as well as first chaplain who served two infantry divisions during combat.
In addition to completing chaplaincy schools at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., and Harvard University, Gibson earned degrees from Lincoln University and Crozer Theological Seminary, where he was the first black graduate.
He held two master’s degrees: in sociology/race relations from the University of Pennsylvania, and in educational psychology from Temple University.
Gibson enlisted in the U.S. Army as a chaplain in 1941 before the war started — at the age of 37. In 1933, he had married a Georgia girl, Jeffery Melnese Wilson. One daughter, Cornelia Gertrude, and one son, Elmer Gibson Jr., came from this union.
After chaplaincy assignments in Arizona, Louisiana and Mississippi, Gibson moved with his 364th Infantry Regiment to the Aleutians — first to Adak Island, and later to Shemya Island. He was posted there from January 1944 until after the war ended.
After a brief stint as a civilian and chaplain for the VA Hospital in Roanoke, Gibson re-joined the Army as a chaplain with the grade of major. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1950.
He joined the 10th Army Corps chaplaincy staff in Korea in May 1952 and made frequent visits to front-line troops. As a lieutenant colonel, Gibson was awarded a Bronze Star while serving as 44th Infantry Division Chaplain and a second Bronze Star while serving as 2nd Infantry Division Chaplain.
In addition to numerous unit and campaign awards, his personal decorations include the Legion of Merit.
Gibson was also a gifted organist — he wrote and published several lyrics and musical arrangements.
Gibson retired in 1957, after which he served 10 years as president of Morristown College, Morristown, Tenn.
He was 90 when he died June 10, 1994. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Thanks to Elmer Petticord Gibson Jr. for donating his father’s papers to the State Archives of North Carolina. Information in this piece was drawn from blogs written by Matthew M. Peek, military collection archivist for the State Archives.
Thanks also to James Pettiford, a High Point resident and distant relative of Elmer Gibson, for alerting me to Peek’s blogs.
Harry Thetford is a retired Sears store manager and author of “Remembered,” a book about 99 former students of Greensboro Senior High School (Grimsley) who were killed during World War II. Contact him at email@example.com or 336-707-8922.