GREENSBORO — At N.C. A&T, like at most universities, the buildings are named for people who played important roles on campus.
The original main building is named for a past A&T president. So, too, are the library, the current administration building and four academic buildings.
And then there’s Campbell Hall, home of A&T’s ROTC programs since 1955. The building’s namesake, Robert Campbell, wasn’t a college president or a dean or a major donor. He became the university’s first instructor of military science way back in 1919.
But Campbell was so much more than just a college instructor. He held a patent for an invention he came up with while in college in Alabama. He fought in the Spanish-American War and again in World War I, where he was honored by two different governments for his bravery under fire.
A century ago this fall, Campbell received one of France’s top military medals in a ceremony that made national news. A program Saturday at the Greensboro History Museum will commemorate Campbell’s life and service.
Campbell was a well-known figure around the A&T campus long after the war ended, said James Stewart, the archives and special collections librarian at A&T’s Bluford Library.
“He was the definition,” Stewart said, “of an officer and a gentleman.”
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Robert Lee Campbell was born in 1875 in Athens, Ga. Little is known about his early life until he enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. At the historically black school in Alabama, he studied to be a machinist.
Campbell left school in 1899 to enlist in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. He served for two years in the infantry in the Philippines. He returned to Tuskegee in 1901 as a sergeant.
Two years later, Campbell was awarded a patent for a valve gear for steam engines. He shared the patent with Booker T. Washington — yes, that Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee’s first president and one of the nation’s top black leaders more than a century ago.
After graduation, Campbell joined the faculty at Alabama A&M, then moved to Greensboro in 1911 to work at what was soon to be called the Negro Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina.
At A&T College, Campbell ran the machine shop and the college’s steam power plant. He also taught auto mechanics. (Stewart, A&T’s archivist, notes that professors back in the day often did multiple jobs on campus.)
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Campbell rejoined the Army. He was commissioned as a first lieutenant and assigned to the 368th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit that was part of the segregated 92nd Infantry Division.
After training stateside, Campbell was shipped to France in June 1918. By September, the division took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive against a weakened but still deadly German army. More than 1 million U.S. soldiers fought in the largest American attack of the war. In the seven weeks between the start of this assault and the end of the war, more than 26,000 U.S. soldiers were killed. It remains the single deadliest campaign in American history.
On Sept. 27, 1918, Campbell and his soldiers came under fire near the town of Binarville in eastern France. A messenger making his way through the lines was shot down by the Germans. Campbell dodged shell holes and machine gun fire as he raced out into the open, grabbed the wounded private and ran back to safety.
For his bravery, Campbell was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross — the second-highest U.S. military honor behind only the Medal of Honor — and a Croix de Guerre for valor from the French.
Campbell won a second Croix de Guerre after another encounter with German soldiers, according to later media reports and an account of black soldiers entered into the Congressional Record.
As Campbell and his men were walking down a French road, they were surprised by machine gun fire. Campbell ordered one of his men to crawl through the thick underbrush and tie a rope to a faraway shrub. As the soldier tugged the rope, the bush waggled back and forth. The German machine gun turned and fired at it.
That ruse revealed the enemy hiding place, and Campbell and his men flanked the distracted Germans. They killed four enemy soldiers and captured three more soldiers and the machine gun.
Campbell was wounded and gassed in October, a month before the war ended, and later received a Purple Heart. The Army sent him home in 1919 and assigned him to take charge of a new ROTC unit at A&T.
In October 1919, a U.S. Army colonel came to A&T to present Campbell — now A&T's first military science instructor — with his French medal. A marching band performed, ROTC cadets paraded by, and the colonel read the citation signed by France’s top commanding general. Newspapers around the nation ran stories about the event.
“The Agricultural and Technical college was honored this afternoon as no other negro institution in the country," an A&T correspondent wrote in the Greensboro Daily News on Oct. 20, 1919. “As far as we know, no white institution has been given this unusual distinction. Indeed it is something that the negroes of this city should never forget, and more especially those who were fortunate enough to have seen the decoration.”
That Campbell was honored by a foreign government was a big deal, said Glenn Perkins, the curator of community history at the Greensboro History Museum who helped put together the museum’s World War I exhibit.
“He was recognized by the French government at a time when American troops were segregated,” Perkins said. “In some ways he became a symbol that African American officers were as capable — or more — as white officers.”
Shortly after the ceremony, the Army sent Campbell to Alabama A&M to establish an ROTC unit there. He later returned to A&T as a machine shop instructor and, eventually, military commandant. During the 1940s, he served as assistant dean of men and managed the cafeteria until he retired in 1949. His wife, Alice, was A&T's assistant dean of women.
Around campus, Campbell was known as “Captain" for the rank he gained after the war. He had a slight build, curly hair and a thin face. Campbell spoke in a whisper, possibly as a result of being gassed in the Great War, and was sometimes hard to hear. A meticulous dresser, he broke out his medals on special occasions.
“Legend has it,” the late dean and professor Albert W. Spruill wrote in a history of A&T published in 1964, “that he had so many (military) decorations that he could not wear all of them at one time.”
On Sundays, male students were required to dress up to eat in the dining hall. If a young man didn't pass muster, the Captain would come up beside him and whisper, “You don’t have a tie on.” The student would retreat to his dorm room and find suitable neckwear.
As Spruill wrote: “All the students knew what that meant, and few rebelled against him.”
Campbell eventually left Greensboro for California to live near his daughter and her family. He married a second time — Stewart isn’t sure if Campbell’s first marriage ended in death or divorce — and died in 1972 at age 96. He’s buried in Los Angeles National Cemetery along with 15 Medal of Honor winners and more than 100 Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry soldiers who served after the Civil War.
“He’s still a legend here,” Stewart said. “He seemed to be a very memorable man.”
MORE WWI CONNECTIONS
Several other Greensboro residents connected to local colleges had roles in World War I. They included:
• Dr. Anna M. Gove served as a Red Cross doctor in France in 1918 and 1919. Gove was the campus physician and health professor at State Normal and Industrial School (now UNCG) from 1893 — the year after the school opened — until she retired in 1937. UNCG’s student health center is named for her.
• Richard J.M. Hobbs served in France from 1917 to 1919 in the American Friends Reconstruction Unit, a Quaker group that helped war refugees. His father was Lewis Lyndon Hobbs, president of Guilford College. His mother was Mary Mendenhall Hobbs, who helped promote the newly-formed American Friends Service Committee that helped find non-combat wartime roles for conscientious objectors like her son.
• Margaret Mitchell “Madge” Falkener led the local Home Service Committee of the Florence Nightingales, the black auxiliary of the Greensboro Red Cross. A talented pianist, she’s credited with starting the music program at A&T. Her husband, Henry Hall Falkener, was briefly a North Carolina state senator and one of the first faculty members at A&T. Greensboro’s Falkener Elementary is named for their son, Waldo, who served on Greensboro City Council.
• Harriet Wiseman Elliott was a history instructor at the school now known as UNCG when President Woodrow Wilson appointed her to the North Carolina branch of the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense in 1918. That group helped coordinate support for the war at home. Elliott later served as dean of women at UNCG. The university's student center is named for her.
Sources: Greensboro History Museum's exhibit "Lest We Forget: WWI through the Eyes of Nine," News & Record research