Special from the Director of the Atwood Institute, Dr. Crystal deGregory

Long before his 33-year tenure as the ninth and longest-serving president in Kentucky State University’s history, Rufus Ballard Atwood was a decorated war hero. 

While most of his cohorts were enjoying college life on the Fisk University campus, Rufus Atwood was volunteering for service in World War I. In obedience with the patriot zeitgeist of Fisk, and other black colleges including Howard University and Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), black male students took advantage of the newly-established training camp for black officers in Des Moines, Iowa.

With the knowledge that the army was the only branch of the armed forces which permitted blacks to serve in different units, Atwood enlisted on February 3, 1918. He and the other 41 young Fisk men who did so during February 1918, undoubtedly hoped that their patriotism would engender unbridled democracy at home and abroad. Sadly, the democratic ideal would prove unrealized, reducing Atwood and the army’s more than 350,000 African American WWI servicemen–including a limited number of black women who fought for Army Nurse Corps assignments–to service in segregated units that did not enjoy the same privileges or opportunities as whites.

Still, the courage and valor of Atwood, as well as others like him was on full display on November 10, 1918. That day, the building which housed the switchboard of the 325th Field Signal Battalion, where he served as a member of the B Company was struck by enemy shellfire, and the battalion’s lines of communication were severed.

Under heavy shell fire, Atwood helped to reconstruct the switchboard and connect new lines. Despite the explosion of an ammunition dump, he remained dedicated to the task. And when two additional explosions destroyed the lines he had only just fixed, Atwood was left alone to single-handedly repair them again as well as to establish a new switchboard. Having successfully done so, he received a citation and was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroics.

– Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D.