Joseph Henry Duncan

Joseph Henry Duncan was born on February 27, 1893, at 57 Kendall Street in Boston’s South End, to William and Emma (Brown) Duncan. William was a native Bostonian, while Emma had been born in Haytokah, Nottoway County, Virginia. They married in Boston in October 1892. At the time of Joseph’s birth, William was an elevator operator. Later he worked as a janitor. William and Emma also had five younger children: Howard born in 1894, Clarence in 1896, William in 1898, Dwight in 1900, and Edith in 1904. Dwight died of cholera infantum in 1900 and William of bronchitis in 1901.

Joseph does not appear to have lived with his parents, as he is not included in their household on either the 1900 or 1910 censuses. Emma was about 16 years old when Joseph was born, and it is likely he was raised by his grandparents. In 1918, when he entered the Army, he listed his grandmother, Ellen Brown, as his next of kin. He was probably the seven-year-old Joseph Brown whom the 1900 census recorded living with Ellen and her husband, Allen Brown. Allen was a janitor, who had earlier been a clergyman. Both had been born in Virginia in the 1850s. Ellen and Allen had three sons who were close to Joseph in age: John Bernard born in 1888, Thomas Jefferson in 1891, and Henry Richard in 1893. All three were also born at 57 Kendall Street.

In 1917, when Joseph registered for the First World War draft, he was living in his grandparents’ home at 21 Woodrow Avenue near Codman Square, employed as a paper cutter with Rand Avery Supply Company of 117 Franklin Street in Boston. Joseph Brown had moved to Barre, Vermont, where he worked in the granite industry. Thomas was a printer in Boston and Henry, a laborer with Taylor Brothers of Dorchester.

On April 21, 1918, Joseph was drafted and inducted into the Army. He served in Company E of the 367th Infantry. The regiment was part of the 92nd Division, or Buffalo Division, which was one of only two Black combat divisions. The 367th had been organized at Camp Upton, New York, in 1917. Joseph and the 367th departed for France on June 10, 1918, sailing from Hoboken, New Jersey, on the SS America, and arriving overseas on June 19. The division received further training in the Bourbonne Les Bains area. After eight weeks, they moved to Bruyères, in the Vosges Mountains.

In late August, they were assigned to the St. Die defensive sector. On August 31, they repulsed a German attack, which included the use of “artillery bombardment, mustard gas, and flame throwers.” About two weeks later, the Germans tried another tactic. According to a history of the regiment, the men were “bombarded with what at first was thought to be gas shells; however, on closer inspection they were found to contain circulars of printed matter.” The text of the circular was included in a book by YMCA workers Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson, Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces. Addressed “To the Colored Soldiers of the United States Army,” the leaflet asked if these soldiers making the world safe for democracy experienced democracy back home. “Do you enjoy the same rights as the white people do in America … Can you get into a restaurant where white people dine? Can you get a seat in theatre where white people sit? … You have been made the tool of the egotistic and rapacious rich in America … To carry a gun in this service is not an honor but a shame. Throw it away and come over to the German lines. You will find friends who will help you.” The propaganda did not achieve its aim; according to the regimental history, “the invitation had no effect other than to present an intimate view of the German methods.”

On September 24, the 367th moved to the Argonne Forest, where they remained until October 5, when they were assigned to the Marbache defensive sector, near Nancy. They participated in the engagement at the Bois de Cheminot, the Boise de la Voivrotte, and Bois Frehaut on October 10 and 11. On November 10, 1918, Joseph was transferred to Company I, 366th Infantry. According to a news report, during his time in Europe, Joseph was “several times gassed and wounded.” He returned to the United States in February 1919, sailing from Brest, France, on the RMS Aquitania on February 22 and arriving in New York City on February 28. On March 19, he was discharged at Camp Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts.

In 1920, Joseph was again living with his grandparents at 21 Woodrow Avenue and working as a cutter at a paper company. His parents lived down the street at 17 Woodrow Avenue. His uncle, John, had died in 1919, Thomas was a painter and Henry was a clerk at a laundry company. During the 1920s, Joseph was active with various veterans’ organizations. He was a member of the Dorchester Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. According to an article in the Boston Globe, “he was one of the most active workers of the organization, and was well known throughout the State as an entertainer.” He also belonged to the Charles L. Hammond Post, Number 78, American Legion.

Suffering from health problems relating to having been gassed during World War I, Joseph sought treatment in California. He died in the Veterans Hospital in San Francisco on February 10, 1927. A funeral was held for him at 21 Woodrow Avenue. He was buried “with ceremony” by his VFW post, including a gun salute given by Company E of the 13th Infantry. His obituaries gave conflicting reports as to whether he was buried in Forest Hills or Mount Hope cemetery.

Researched and written by Camille Arbogast.


Massachusetts Vital Records, 1840–1911. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts;

1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Federal Census;

Family Tree, Family

United States, Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration;

Military, Compiled Service Records. World War I. Carded Records. Records of the Military Division of the Adjutant General’s Office, Massachusetts National Guard.

Lists of Outgoing & Incoming Passengers, 1917-1938, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985, The National Archives at College Park, MD;

Barbeau, Arthur E. and Henri Florette. The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974;

United States Army, Pictorial History Three Hundred Sixty Seventh Infantry, Army of the United States, 1942. World War Regimental Histories, 1942; Bangor Public Library <>

Hunton, Addie W. and Kathryn M. Johnson. Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Eagle Press, 1920: 53-54;

“Joseph H. Duncan Dies, Dorchester War Veteran,” Boston Globe, 19 February 1927: 12;

“Deaths,” Boston Globe, 19 February 1927: 18;

California Department of Health and Welfare. California Vital Records, The Vitalsearch Company Worldwide, Inc., Pleasanton, CA;

“V. of F.W. Service at Funeral of Joseph Duncan,” Boston Globe, 21 February 1927: 14;



Posted on

April 3, 2022

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