Western New York Heritage

Jesse Wallace Clipper: The Soldier and the Man

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Jessie Wallace Clipper, ca. 1911.  This publicity photo was autographed for followers of his act.

Private collection

Jesse Clipper was the first African American soldier from Buffalo to succumb to injuries sustained in World War I. His name is well known in Western New York—American Legion Post 430 was named for him, as is Jesse Clipper Square, located at the corner of Michigan Avenue and William Street. The square includes a monument that reads, “In memory of the valiant service of negroes in all wars of these United States of America to the glory of God.”

Clipper has been described in local newspapers as a pleasant, hard worker who was drafted while working at the American Palace Laundry in Buffalo. He is sometimes portrayed as a young newlywed just beginning his career as a musician, who became a hero when he died while serving his country. Until now, little has been written about his early life, and there is far more to this Buffalo hero than is commonly known.

In 1910, there were about 1,700 African Americans living in the Queen City. The Great Migration of blacks coming north to find industrial jobs began midway through the decade and, by 1920, the black population of Buffalo had more than doubled. However, Jesse Clipper wasn’t part of the Great African American diaspora; he arrived in Buffalo by a path less taken. Contrary to popular belief, Jesse Clipper wasn’t drafted. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 35. He didn’t have to go to war—he chose to serve. But before he was a soldier, he had already lived a life filled with joy and heartache, professional accomplishments and personal losses.

Family and Early Life

After the Civil War, many former slaves escaped the dangers and difficulties of the post-emancipation South by heading west. Clipper’s grandfather, Jesse Thomas, was among them. By 1876, Thomas and his family had moved from Missouri to Nebraska. This included Jesse Clipper’s mother Lizzie, the only member of the Thomas family who was born after emancipation. Within a few years, Jesse Thomas obtained a coveted job as a railroad porter, a job he would keep until his death in 1899. Jesse’s father William was a former slave who was born in Alabama. He also headed west, where he would marry Lizzie Thomas.

As a porter, Clipper’s grandfather moved his family from town to town as his job required. From Omaha, the family moved to Salt Lake City, where Jesse Wallace Clipper was born in April 1882. Three years later, when his brother and only sibling Richard “Dick” Ulysses was born, the Thomas-Clipper family lived in Denver. Soon after, the family moved to Portland where they remained for seven years. Despite the city’s strictly enforced racial segregation, about 800 African Americans lived in the city, many filling the railroad’s need for workers.

Initially, Jesse’s extended family shared a home with a porter named William Newman and his wife Dora. Dora Newman was the Portland correspondent to The Appeal, an African American newspaper published out of Saint Paul, MN. Her writing indicates that African Americans in Portland had a strong sense of community despite the racial disparities imposed upon them. The AME Zion Church that the Clipper family attended served not only as a place of worship, but also as a center for community gatherings and entertainment. Dinners, dances and church socials often included performances of popular music by church members. The extended Clipper family was mentioned often in The Appeal, especially when the topic involved music. In December 1890, The Appeal described some of the entertainment at a fundraising concert given by their church choir.

Mrs. Clipper’s solo, “Robin I’ll Be True” was sung in her clear soprano, she answered the encore with “You naughty, naughty man” which brought down the house.…Masters Jesse and Dickie Clipper’s duet was sung in good clear voices, they answered encores twice… Mr. B.S. Walker’s solo, ‘A Soldier and a Man’ was splendid, he was recalled and answered to the encore.

Ernest Hogan (shown here with Carita Day, ca. 1905) was one of the best-known black performers and songwriters of the early 20th century, though many of his performances were products of the racial stereotypes of his time.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

In 1892, The Appeal carried a brief note regarding a Portland performance by 10-year-old Jesse Clipper as “footman” for Miss Nellie McHenry, a star on the white vaudeville circuit. This was not his only professional work as a child performer. In a 1911 New York Age article introducing the adult Jesse to New York theatergoers, Lester Walton wrote “Clipper received his first schooling years ago under the tutelage of the late Ernest Hogan.” This probably meant that Clipper was one of the talented black children who toured and performed in the companies of famous vaudeville stars like Hogan, who was one of the best-known black performers and songwriters of his time.

In 1898, Lizzie Clipper remarried, and the family moved to Hanford, CA, where Jesse and Dick Clipper quickly became known for their dancing and singing abilities. By 1900, 18-year-old Jesse lived at a hotel in Hanford where he worked as a messenger boy. His grandmother, mother and brother lived together in nearby Lemoore, where the two women worked as cooks and his brother attended school. Jesse’s stepfather was in prison for stabbing another man during an altercation outside his home. The Hanford Journal credited Jesse with preventing his stepfather from murdering the other man, describing how Jesse grabbed a buggy whip from the man’s carriage and hit his stepfather in the head with the butt end of the whip, stopping the attack. This would not be the only time that Jesse would display uncommon bravery when innocent lives were at stake.

Beginning in the spring of 1901, Jessie Clipper took classes at Oakland’s Polytechnic Business College Shorthand Institute and School of Engineering. The experience would serve him well in his later attempt to enlist in the Army.

Private collection

In the spring of 1901, Jesse attended the predominantly white Polytechnic Business College Shorthand Institute and School of Engineering in Oakland. It is not clear how long he attended or what courses he took. The college was established in 1898 and has long since closed its doors. However, early advertisements show that the college offered both traditional business training and a wide range of engineering courses. By 1903, Jesse had moved back to Hanford where he and his brother joined McKanlass’ Alabama Warblers, a minstrel troupe of about 20 young black men and women who performed at tent shows, small theaters and opera houses throughout the West and Canada.

By the end of the 1904 season, Jesse had left the Warblers, and was living in Stockton, CA, where he would marry 16-year-old Lillian Carson and begin full-time work as a vocalist. The young couple had been married less than four years when tragedy struck. In the early autumn of 1908, a man attacked Ruby Burns and Lillian in the Seattle boarding house room the Clippers had rented. The Seattle Star reported that a knife-wielding Everett St. Clair chased Ruby Burns down the street in her night clothes, following her into the Clippers’ room where he stabbed her and Lillian, “a colored woman in whose room she had taken refuge.” Before their attacker could kill the two women, “Mr. Clipper broke into the room and floored the would-be murderer with a blow to his face.” The unarmed Clipper disabled St. Claire without being wounded.

Due to local Jim Crow laws, Jessie had to pay a $100 fee in order to testify in person at St. Clair’s trial. Equivalent to almost $3,000 in today’s currency, this was an enormous amount of money for a struggling young vocalist with a wife in the hospital. Somehow Clipper raised the required fee and testified against his wife’s attacker, who was convicted of assault and sent to jail. Ruby recovered from her wounds but Lillian was not as fortunate. On January 7, 1908, the Star ran a follow-up story with the headline: “Wounds Hasten Woman’s Death.” Lillian Clipper had died the previous afternoon. While she died of tuberculosis, the Star reported that her death was hastened by the wounds inflicted by St. Clair. She was only 19 years old.

The Vaudeville Star

Soon after the death of his first wife Lillian in 1908, Jesse married entertainer Della Tanner (shown here, ca. 1911). The pair would tour the black Midwest vaudeville circuit, performing as The Two Clippers, Jesse and Della Fox

Private collection

After Lillian’s death, Clipper began to make local appearances with a talented young singer from Tacoma named Della Tanner. The couple was married in 1909 and soon traveled to Chicago to begin their vaudeville career together. Using Chicago as their home base, they toured the black Midwest vaudeville circuit performing as The Two Clippers, Jesse and Della Fox. It was grueling work, requiring multiple performances per day in segregated theaters for an unpredictable and meager income. They traveled long distances by train to get from place to place, often playing one three-day job then traveling overnight to perform in another town the next day, staying in a never-ending series of thread-bare, blacks-only boarding houses. Accommodations for black performers were often far away from the places they performed. On rare occasions, black vaudeville stars would perform for a white audience. However, vaudeville of the 1910s was a segregated affair. Black performers played to black audiences, limiting their opportunities for work. Not everyone made it to headliner status, which required talent, luck and a strong work ethic.


In addition to talent, Jesse and Della Clipper had something else that contributed to their success; an on-stage chemistry that both audiences and critics loved. Sylvester Russell of the Chicago Defender captured the highlights of their act in this 1911 review:

There was a good reason for the crowds that congested the doorway at the Monogram. Jesse and Della Clipper had returned, and the man with the magnificent voice again made musical and comedy love to his pretty little wife who had threatened to forsake him. The change from despair to the warmth of happiness, Miss Clipper’s good acting and her husband’s grotesque comical finish was the main cause…

The Clippers made their debut at New York’s Crescent Theater on December 5, 1911. They were held over, breaking the theater’s record for days of continuous performance. They quickly became headliners on the coveted Northeast vaudeville circuit, with New York City as their base of operations. Jesse became a regular at functions held by “the Frogs,” an elite New York African American theater organization established in 1908 by black stage legends Bert Williams and George Walker.

The August 1912 variety show staged by the Frogs was a highlight of Harlem’s theater season. The Age’s review of this star-studded event featuring the top names in black vaudeville singled out Jesse for special praise: “Then came Jesse Clipper of the Clippers, who is considered by many to be the next performer to head a colored show. Clipper sang ‘Ragtime Violin,’ and the more he sang and danced, the more the audience applauded. He was compelled to sit down from sheer exhaustion, after responding to several encores.” James Reese Europe, the famous African America musician who would later be credited with bringing Jazz to France, directed the orchestra that accompanied Clipper.

After their NYC debut, Jessie and Della Clipper were paired with headliners like Aida Overton Walker (shown here, ca. 1912), one of the most famous black female vaudeville entertainers at the time.
Library of Congress

Over the next year, the Clippers continued their intensive touring schedule in the Northeast, with standing-room-only crowds wherever they performed. However, when they were in New York City, they still found time to help fellow performers with charitable events. One of these was sponsored by their friend Aida Overton-Walker, the best-known female African American vaudeville performer of her time and an important American innovator of modern dance. In 1913, the Frogs repeated their highly successful variety show in Manhattan “featuring the leading performers of the race.” However, this time they also took their large show on the road, playing in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond and Washington, DC. Jesse and Della Clipper were an active part of this historic tour.

It would be one of the last great events of their career together. In late 1913, Della became ill, requiring the Clippers to curtail their schedule of performances. Early in 1914, Jessie took a leave so he could be with her in Chicago. After an absence of several months, he appeared on the New York stage in October, minus Della, “who was ill in Chicago.” His new trio act featured him singing and playing the trombone. The Age critic Lester Walton’s generally positive review described the wonderful tone Clipper got out of his trombone, “which he does without playing forte.” By the time the review appeared, Della had returned to Tacoma to be with her family. The 23-year-old died at the home of her parents on November 10, 1914.

The Buffalonian and World War I Soldier

A well-respected, multi-talented performer who wrote most of his own routines, Jessie clearly had the potential to continue his vaudeville career without his wife. But when Della died, something seemed to change. Clipper walked away from vaudeville, moved to Buffalo and began the difficult task of rebuilding his life. For the first time in almost a decade, he took a straight job, working first as a waiter, then at the American Palace Laundry. He adopted Buffalo as his home, establishing community ties and renting an apartment rather than living out of a suitcase.

Jesse lived at 42 Potter Street, which is now Nash Street. This house, demolished years ago, was three away from the long-time residence of Rev. J. Edward Nash, well-known pastor of the Michigan Street Baptist Church, which is now the Nash House Museum. In October 1916, Clipper married Buffalo resident Edna Mercer. Meanwhile, he assembled his own musical groups, acting as orchestra leader and vocalist, and began to perform in various local venues on a part-time basis.

Moving to Buffalo following the death of his second wife, Jessie Clipper took an apartment at 42 Porter St (indicated in red), just behind the Michigan Street Baptist Church and two doors down from the house that the Rev. J. Edward Nash would call home, beginning in 1925 (both indicated in blue).

Western New York Heritage collection

The 1918 membership book for the American Federation of Musicians Local 533. Jessie Clipper is listed as vice president even though he had already enlisted in the U.S. Army.

American Federated Musicians Union Collection, University at Buffalo Music Library

In February 1917, Clipper helped form a local union for African American musicians who were not eligible to join the local whites-only union. He was elected its first vice president. Local 533 was only the eighth black standalone American Federation of Musicians union in the U.S. As opposed to black subsidiary unions, which were in the majority, standalone locals were fully responsible for their own management and finances. Formed by Local 533, the Colored Musicians Club survives as one of the oldest musicians’ clubs in the U.S. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By this time, notices of his Western New York performances began to appear in national African American newspapers. But it was a newspaper article published in December 1917 that would change the course of Jessie’s life.

On April 6, 1917, the United States had declared war on Germany. Within a week, more than 20,000 African Americans enlisted before the government stopped accepting black volunteers. Noting that “quotas were filled,” the military announced that from that point forward, blacks entering the service could do so only via the draft. Thus, most assume that Clipper was drafted, but this was not the case. The first registration for the draft on June 5, 1917, was limited to men between 21 and 31. Federal census records, voter registration lists and his California marriage license all confirm that Jesse Clipper was born in 1882. In 1917, he was nearly 36 years old, thus making him ineligible. Draft registration for men over 31 didn’t occur until September 12, 1918. The official New York State abstract of Clipper’s World War I military service, however, shows that he enlisted in the Regular Army at Columbus (Ohio) Barracks on February 7, 1918. He is listed as being 33 years old, suggesting the possibility that Jessie shaved a few years off his age to increase the likelihood of being allowed to enlist.

So how did Clipper manage to enlist? The Army needed African Americans to serve as stevedores and laborers, but it was not eager to have them serve in combat. In order to ensure the cooperation and support of blacks for the war effort, however, the Army established a single segregated, but complete, combat division—the 92nd—made up of African American draftees, which included the 317th Engineer Regiment. Initially, this regiment was to be filled with draftees from Ohio. However, by December 1917, it became clear they would need additional men. Select newspapers announced that the Army Corps of Engineers was looking for additional African Americans:

There will be a splendid field in this regiment for men who have attended college and who have pursued various manual training courses. The regiment will include men skilled in the engineering trades…In order to obtain colored men possessing the requisite qualifications, it has been decided to expand the list of eligibles so as to include voluntary enlistment as well as men liable to draft who have not yet been called…who will avail themselves of this splendid opportunity for useful, patriotic service. All persons interested should write at once to Col. Earl I. Brown, commanding the three hundred and seventeenth engineers; Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio.

African American enlistees, still in civilian clothes, fall in along side a drill instructor at Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, OH.

National Archives

Exactly what Clipper wrote in his letter to Colonel Brown remains a mystery, but he probably mentioned his Oakland coursework from 1901 to prove he had engineering training. On February 7, 1918, when Local 533 installed its founding slate of officers, their newly elected vice president, Jesse Clipper, was installed in-absentia. On that day, he was at Columbus Barracks, preparing for a move south to Camp Sherman at Chillicothe for basic training as part of Company D, 317th Engineers.

The 317th Engineers sailed for France on June 7, 1918, arriving on June 25. In July, the Army Corps of Engineers replaced all of the unit’s black officers with white ones, meaning its black soldiers could only rise to non-commissioned ranks. By mid-August, the 317th finished its engineering and infantry training. Jesse Clipper was promoted to the rank of corporal on August 27, maintaining this rank for the duration of his service. At this point in the war, both the French and American armies were in desperate need of combat engineers. So, although the 317th was part of the 92nd Division, it carried out work for the 33rd Corps of the French Army and other combat divisions of the American Army.

A divisionally marked helmet from the 92nd Infantry Division, World War I. The division took as its insignia a buffalo emblem, in deference to the black “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 19th century.

Private collection

A combat engineer’s work is dangerous and demanding. Although they were frequently under enemy fire, the men of the 317th were ordered to avoid engaging the enemy and keep working. As one of Clipper’s officers wrote of his men, “it takes considerable nerve to work under fire of different kinds without a chance to strike back.” The 317th regularly worked at, and sometimes beyond the front on a variety of critically important engineering projects. If enemy fire became too intense by daylight, they sometimes worked through the night.

Jessie Wallace Clipper’s grave at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, France.

Reverend Eugene Pierce photograph, 2017

The unit routinely displayed uncommon bravery and resourcefulness under challenging circumstances. For example, when they lacked the wire-cutters needed to cut through German barbed wire, they went into enemy territory and stole tools from the engineer dumps manned by German soldiers. When they needed a locomotive to pull carloads of ammunition across the tracks they had built, a platoon from the 317th “liberated” one from the Germans while under heavy shell fire. As Clipper’s senior officer said in his final report, “If something could be done to assist any branch of the service, it was done regardless of whether it is specified in the ‘Book’ or not.”

The regular artillery, machine gun and gas attacks experienced by the 317th resulted in many causalities, one of whom was Corporal Jesse Clipper. He was hospitalized, but recovered and returned to his unit. However, before the war ended, he was seriously injured in a gas attack and hospitalized again. Lungs damaged by blistering agents are highly susceptible to infection and, on February 21, 1919, after a lengthy hospitalization, Corporal Jesse Clipper died of pneumonia and pleurisy—just four days before his regiment boarded the transport ship RMS Coriana and sailed for home. He is buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, France.

Corporal Jesse Clipper, Buffalo Hero

The same month Corporal Clipper passed away, a group of officers held a conference in France where they voted to establish a new group, formed by commissioned officers and enlisted men from all branches of the American Expeditionary Forces. It was tentatively called the American Legion. Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt described the organization as being “strictly non-partisan. Its objects being to perpetuate comradeships formed during the war, to preserve the history of the conflict and to maintain the principles for which American soldiers and sailors trained fought and died.”

As local American Legion groups were organized, African American veterans often formed their own posts. Led by Lt. Mosby B. McAden, the Jesse Clipper American Legion Post 430 was established in 1919. In 1920, the post held a special ceremony at which they presented a posthumous certificate of honor from the French government to Edna Clipper, Corporal Clipper’s widow. Later, Edna Clipper’s name appeared on a government list of Gold Star mothers and wives who were eligible to visit the graves of their family members in France. However, there is no evidence that she actually made the trip.

Black veterans of World War I would bring their fight for democracy home to Buffalo as members of the Jesse Clipper Post. Over the past century, the post has provided continuing service to returning veterans, their families and the community. Furthermore, they have ensured that the sacrifice of Jesse Clipper and the many other African Americans who have served our country since its inception are remembered and honored by Western New York.

A monument to Jessie Clipper and all the African American soldiers from Buffalo stands in Jessie Clipper Square at the corner of Michigan Avenue and William Street.

Craig Steger photograph, 2021

In 2017, Reverend Eugene Pierce, the current commander of the Jesse Clipper Post, flew to Germany to attend his nephew’s Army promotion ceremony. Afterwards, Pierce, his brother and nephew drove 272 miles to the Oise-Aisne Cemetery in France to visit Clipper’s grave. Led by the Reverend, the three men held a short graveside memorial service honoring Jesse and offered prayers of thanksgiving for the Buffalo soldier’s life.

The 317th Engineer Regiment at Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, OH, 1918.

Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection

To view in high resolution, visit:  https://www.ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p16007coll51/id/5612

The full content is available in the Winter 2022 Issue.