Otis B. Duncan
|Otis Beverly Duncan|
Otis B. Duncan
October 18, 1873|
|Died||May 17, 1937
|Buried||Camp Butler National Cemetery|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
||United States Army|
|Years of service||1902–1929|
Otis Beverly Duncan (November 18, 1873 - May 17, 1937) was an officer in the United States Army. He was the highest-ranking African American in the American Expeditionary Forces at the end of World War I, serving as a lieutenant colonel in the 370th Infantry Regiment.
Illinois was different from other states during the Jim Crow era in that it organized, and paid for the training of, an all-African-American regiment within the Illinois National Guard. This unit, organized in the 1870s, was the 8th Illinois Infantry.
Otis B. Duncan was born on November 18, 1873 to Clark and Julia (née Chaverous or Chavous) Duncan. He was a member of a long-established African-American family of Springfield, Illinois; his father was a grocer and his maternal great-grandfather, barber William Florville, had been a friend of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1895, Duncan became a worker for the state of Illinois, serving in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (the predecessor of the current Illinois State Board of Education). In addition, Duncan entered the Illinois National Guard in 1902; assigned to the 8th Illinois, he was commissioned as an officer. When the 8th Illinois was called into national service during the Pancho Villa Expedition into Mexico in 1916, Duncan served as a major on the regimental staff.
Springfield race riot
Despite (or perhaps because of) his service as an officer in the Illinois National Guard, Duncan was a prominent victim of the Springfield Race Riot of 1908. Contemporary news accounts indicate that a white mob broke into and ransacked Duncan's house; they shattered furniture, smashed the family piano and used Duncan's National Guard saber to gouge out the eyes of a portrait of Duncan's mother that was hanging in the house. The mob was reported to have stolen clothes, jewelry and everything of value they could find, including the saber.
World War I
After the American entry into World War I, in April 1917, the 8th Illinois, still in national service, was renamed the 370th Infantry Regiment. As the infantry took ship for the Western Front, Duncan became the field commander of the regiment's 3rd Battalion. Still in this capacity, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel on April 3, 1918. After the regimental commander, Colonel Franklin A. Denison, was replaced by a white officer, Lieutenant Colonel Duncan became the highest ranking African-American officer in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). This was a significant achievement due to the segregationist attitudes of President Woodrow Wilson. While serving on the Western Front against the German Army, Duncan was awarded the Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action.
After the war, the 370th Infantry reverted to its prewar status as the 8th Illinois Infantry, and Duncan was promoted on March 18, 1919, to the rank of colonel and commander of the regiment. The regiment was stationed at Springfield's Camp Lincoln. In February 2017, authorities announced the discovery of a post-World War I 8th Illinois collar disc, a service unit insignia artifact connected to the date of Col. Duncan's command.
Retirement, death and honors
Colonel Duncan retired from the state education bureau in 1929 and died on May 17, 1937. He is buried in Camp Butler National Cemetery near Riverton, Illinois, in section 3, grave #835. Duncan is the namesake for American Legion Post 809 in Springfield, Illinois.
- "Otis B. Duncan". Illinois National Guard. Retrieved 2011-07-26.
- "The Victims: A look at some of the others". State Journal-Register. Retrieved 2011-07-26.
- Power, John Carroll (1876). History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois : centennial record. Springfield, IL: Edwin A. Wilson & Company. p. 303. Retrieved 2016-02-04.
- "Camp Lincoln workers find historic military item". Belleville News-Democrat. Retrieved February 16, 2017.
- "American Legion Otis B. Duncan Post #809". Retrieved 2016-02-04.