Professor helps celebrity find their roots on PBS show

March 30, 2020

With 45 years of research work on the World War I African experience and more than 150 oral histories with African WWI veterans, Professor Joe Lunn was contacted by the "Finding Your Roots" team to help interpret WWI ancestor's documents for show.

African and Modern European History Professor Joe Lunn’s extensive research on the African experience during World War I helped connect a Finding Your Roots celebrity with their ancestor’s story.

Lunn can’t tell us who the guest on that particular episode is — that’s for viewers of the PBS genealogy show to find out next season. However, he can share a bit about the ancestor he helped the Find Your Roots research team uncover: French Army infantry Corporal Yoro Diop.

Lunn says many Africans who served during WWI involuntarily fought because European colonial rule in Africa forced African village leaders to put forward young men from their respective communities for the war.

“Villages would have funerals for these men before they left for war because they knew Europeans saw them as expendable in this cause and they might likely be killed,” Lunn says. “If you were an African who was forced to fight in the war in an African regiment, it was often viewed as a death sentence.”

But Diop’s situation was different. Looking through primary historic documents for PBS, Lunn says Diop lived in the West African French commune of Saint-Louis in Senegal where Africans had some French civic rights. Diop was on the older side of the enlistees at age 36. He had a family and was well educated — military records had him listed as a writer, which meant he transcribed for people who were unable to read or write.

So why would an established, more senior person enlist? Looking through the lens of history, Lunn says it was to obtain full citizenship.

Before Diop enlisted, Lunn says there were political debates on whether or not to allow Africans in the French communes like St. Louis to become full French citizens or to be reduced in status to subjects, which means they’d lose the right to vote, due process and be treated more like the Africans in other French and European colonies. To end the debate and show their patriotism, Africans in these French communes agreed to fight for the cause alongside the enlisted men from France.

“An estimated two million Africans were pulled into the First World War and there are so many reasons of why and how they got there.” Lunn says learning about how Africans became entangled in this so-called “white man’s war” is what got him involved with this research area nearly 45 years ago.

On a trip to Sierra Leone, West Africa to visit a friend in the Peace Corps, Lunn was introduced to Kande Kamera, an African who served for France in the First World War. Lunn studied WWI as an undergraduate student, but had never met a veteran from Africa.

African WWI veteran Kande Kamera. Photo taken circa 1975.
African WWI veteran Kande Kamera. Photo taken circa 1975.
African WWI veteran Kande Kamera. Photo taken circa 1975.

Kande Kamera spoke Susu, had white shocks of hair and a white beard, Lunn recalls of their 1975 meeting. After learning through a translator that Lunn was interested in his wartime experience, the man invited Lunn, his friend and the translator to his home, a hut with a corrugated metal roof and dirt floor.

“Kande Kamera was the son of a Susu warrior and he wanted to emulate his father’s reputation as a warrior of greatness. So, as a young man — about the same age as I was at the time — he decided to go off and volunteer. He told this incredible story of tragedy and adventure,” Lunn says. “I knew that Africans had served in the Great War and I had read the European point of view of it, but at that time no one had given the African perspective of what was going on. His story was so different from anything I had heard in my studies. I thought, ‘we need to record this.’”

Kamera’s experience was the focus of Lunn’s first research paper in graduate school and his first publication. It also encouraged Lunn to seek out others. Having interviewed more than 150 WWI African veterans and descendants during his career, Lunn naturally appeared on the PBS show’s radar screen.

“The Finding Your Roots research team knew I had spoken to World War I veterans from Africa and may be able to help interpret what they had found about Cpl. Yiro Diop. I had not known of him before this, but I did know about his unit. I don’t want to spoil too much from the show, but Cpl. Diop’s family member will learn that their ancestor was a decorated veteran.”

Lunn says Finding Your Roots creator and host Henry Louis Gates Jr. works to help African Americans trace their connections back to Africa — the program has expanded to explore family history for all backgrounds, but it began with a focus on African lineage — and the long-time UM-Dearborn faculty member is honored that his research will play a role in this.

“Connecting people with their African history is very important because these links and memories of these links were consciously destroyed by systems of hereditary servitude across the Atlantic. Henry Louis Gates is working to restore what’s been broken and it was a privilege to work with the show.”

In addition to his work with PBS, Lunn has been busy with additional projects. He recently published an article, "The Great War and Senegalese Memory: The Veterans’ Legacy" in a special issue of First World War Studies about African veterans, and recently had an article-length essay, "Africans during the First and Second World Wars," published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History.

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