The Pilgrimages of Gold Star Mothers and Widows in the 1930s: A View into Veterans’ and Women’s History

In May 1918, in the midst of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson wrote to Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, a prominent suffragist and chairperson of the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, asking her for advice on a new symbol of mourning for the women of the nation. Shaw and the Woman’s Committee supported the use of “a gilt star” on a black background, and President Wilson endorsed the idea, fortifying the gold star as a national symbol of ultimate sacrifice.[1] The gold star, typically worn on a black armband on the left arm, denoted that the wearer had a family member who had died in military service, while a blue star represented a family member currently serving in the armed forces. In the 1930s, the last Sunday in September was officially designated as Gold Star Mother’s Day by a joint congressional resolution. First observed on September 27, 1936, the day continues to be observed today as Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.[2]

In the years between the end of the First World War and the official declaration of Gold Star Mother’s Day, Gold Star mothers and widows, yearning to have the chance to grieve at the gravesides of their fallen loved ones, persistently appealed to the federal government to fund pilgrimages to Europe. The first such journeys to battlegrounds and American gravesites in Europe occurred soon after the end of World War I, but it was mainly affluent families who could afford to undertake these voyages.[3] Travelers in these early years after the war often found makeshift grave markers, as the American Battle Monuments Commission was still at work creating appropriate memorials and cemeteries for the fallen. By 1925, non-governmental organizations, such as the Gold Star Association of America, which was associated with the American Legion, began to organize and sponsor pilgrimages to American military cemeteries in Europe.[4]

Printed document providing information on pilgimages for Memorial Day observances

Broadside, March 16, 1925, attached to a letter, from R. M. Bryan, United States Lines, Special Agent Veterans Tours, to Edward Clark, Personal Secretary of the President, March 30, 1925, demonstrating how a tour for a Gold Star Mothers’ pilgrimage was organized. Case File 3410, Reel 177, Calvin Coolidge Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Appeals for the federal government to fund pilgrimages for Gold Star mothers and widows gained increasing support by the mid-1920s. In March 1926, Grace Darling Seibold, future president of the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. (AGSM), visited General John J. Pershing’s office at the State Department and left her calling card. Her intention quite possibly was to lobby the former commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces to advocate for federal support for Gold Star mothers’ pilgrimages.[5] By February 1928, H.R. 5494, a bill that sought to provide government funding for Gold Star mothers and unmarried widows to make pilgrimages to Europe, was introduced in the Senate. In November 1928, the bill still had not passed, and Mathilda H. Burling wrote General Pershing a heartfelt appeal for his support of the pending legislation to fund the pilgrimages.[6] Burling was a very active member of the Gold Star Association of America, the American Legion’s Gold Star group, and she testified before Congress to advocate for government funding for the pilgrimages.[7]

While the bill remained under consideration in Congress, the AGSM met for the first time on June 4, 1928, in Washington, D.C., and was officially incorporated on January 5, 1929. The membership applications that AGSM received, including one by first AGSM national president Grace Seibold, often included photographs and accompanying documentation from the War Department. Over 1,500 original membership applications from Gold Star mothers (and fathers) of World War I can be found within the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., Records in the Manuscript Division. Members organized around a shared sacrifice, with the goal of preserving the memory of the fallen and a strong desire to assist veterans and their families.

After much advocacy by various veterans and Gold Star organizations, including members of the newly founded AGSM, President Calvin Coolidge signed an act of Congress that approved $5.8 million for pilgrimages on March 2, 1929. Congress compiled a list of the women eligible to participate.[8] While it was estimated that over 30,000 women might be eligible, only about 11,000 responded, and only about half of these women wished to make the trip. Others protested the bill, feeling that the funding would be better spent on those service members who had returned from the war with physical and mental injuries.[9]

Application form with handwritten information and press clipping with picture of Liet. George Seibold attached on the left side

First page of membership application form for American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., founder, Grace Darling Seibold, 1928. Box 4, American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Beginning in spring 1930, just months after the October 1929 stock market crash, the U.S. government launched the first pilgrimages to Europe for mothers and widows of the Great War. Since Congress had allocated the funding in early 1929, the pilgrimages went ahead as scheduled during each spring and summer from 1930 to 1933, even as economic conditions worsened. Most pilgrims received generous expense money ($10 per day) and every aspect of the trip was planned and provided for them, including transportation, lodging, and sightseeing tours.[10] However, African American Gold Star mothers and widows did not receive the same quality of accommodations and were segregated from white pilgrims, causing protest from individuals and civil rights groups such as the NAACP.[11] While some African American women chose not to participate to protest discrimination, others, at least 168 women, decided to take the pilgrimages to assuage their grief.[12] Other women, including AGSM founder Grace Darling Seibold, only became eligible for a government-sponsored pilgrimage after the initial act of Congress was amended in 1930 to include mothers of unknown soldiers. In June 1931, Seibold departed Washington, D.C., for New York to begin her pilgrimage with her husband, which was somewhat unusual, as most Gold Star mothers and widows did not travel with guests. Even though he had also lost his son, George Seibold was required to pay all his own expenses for the voyage. The maternal bond and the symbol of a mother’s sacrifice were considered, at the time, to be stronger and more compelling than the paternal relationship with a child.[13]

Upon her return to the U.S., Grace Seibold highlighted many aspects of her trip in various newspaper interviews, including her placement of a gold star at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider of France, her deep emotional response at arriving near the place where her son had died, and a harrowing tale of a bus accident with Gold Star mothers on board.[14] The story of Seibold’s pilgrimage and the experiences of countless other women and men who mourned the loss of their loved ones on those European battlefields continue to resonate today, and the necessity of such organizations as the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., has continued as military conflicts have persisted throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Recognizing these sacrifices and preserving these histories for future generations remains an important part of veterans’, military, and women’s and gender history.

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[1] Woodrow Wilson to Anna Howard Shaw, May 16, 1918, Series 3, Vol. 50, P319 (Reel 155), Shaw to Wilson, May 21, 1918, Series 4, File 4508 (Reel 368), and Wilson to Shaw, May 22, 1918, Series 3, vol. 50, P378 (Reel 155), Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] In 2011, President Barak Obama amended the day to Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day, and recently Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bill, the Gold Star Families Day Act, to Congress to establish the last Monday in September as Gold Star Families Day, a federal holiday to recognize all family members who have lost loved ones in military service.

[3] Many Gold Star mothers and families were overwhelmed not just by the cost, but also the scale of such an ocean voyage to a foreign country, language barriers, and the effects of aging and ill health. See Holly S. Fenlon, That Knock at the Door: The History of Gold Star Mothers in America (Bloomington, Ind., iUniverse, Inc., 2012), 85.

[4] Fenlon, That Knock at the Door, 85-86. See also this letter and attachments, from R. M. Bryan, United States Lines, Special Agent Veterans Tours, to Edward Clark, Personal Secretary of the President, March 30, 1925, File 3410, Reel 177, Calvin Coolidge Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] Calling card of Mrs. George Gordon Seibold attached to carbon copy of letter from General John J. Pershing to Seibold, March 18, 1926, expressing his regret that he was not available when she visited, Box 182, John J. Pershing Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Mathilda Burling, The Gold Star Association of America, to General John J. Pershing, November 13, 1928, Box 37, John J. Pershing Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Burling later became a controversial figure in the history of the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., when she created a rival organization, the American Gold Star Mothers of the World War (AGSM-WW). The similarity of the groups’ names caused much confusion in Congress, at the White House, and in the public eye, as Burling shamelessly promoted her rival group and copied AGSM letterhead and membership cards to do so. See Fenlon, That Knock at the Door, 124-127.

[8] For the list, see: United States. War Department. Pilgrimage for the Mothers and Widows of Soldiers, Sailors, and Mariners of the American Forces Now Interred in the Cemeteries of Europe as Provided by the Act of Congress of March 2, 1929 (Washington, D.C., U. S. Government Printing Office, 1930).

[9] Fenlon, That Knock at the Door, 87-88.

[10] Fenlon, That Knock at the Door, 89-97.

[11] Constance Potter, “World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part 2,” Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration 31, no. 3 (Fall 1999): 140-145; Fenlon, That Knock at the Door, 90-91.

[12] Allison Finkelstein, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917-1945 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2021), 136-138.

[13] Fenlon, That Knock at the Door, 20-23.

[14] Newspaper clipping describing Grace Seibold’s pilgrimage to France, circa 1931, Scrapbook, Box OV1, American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; “Gold Star Mother Relates Story of 148 Visiting France,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), July 26, 1931, B2.

 

Boundary Crossing for a Better Future: Pauli Murray, Patricia Roberts Harris, and the 1982 Mayoral Election in the District of Columbia

Forty years ago, Patricia Roberts Harris went down in defeat to Marion Barry in the 1982 mayoral election in the District of Columbia, yet, her campaign correspondence with legal scholar, feminist, civil rights activist, and unofficial political advisor Pauli Murray reveals the impact of gender on the outcome, the role of intersectionality in the lives of Black women, and the way defeats can lead to future victories.