UM-Dearborn 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.

The ancestor he helped the PBS genealogy show research team uncover was French Army infantry corporal Yoro Diop.

Lunn said 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,” said Lunn, professor of African and modern European history. “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.”

UM-Dearborn professor Joe Lunn has spent 45 years studying the African experience during World War I, which helped him connect a celebrity with their ancestor’s story on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.” (Photo courtesy of Joe Lunn)
UM-Dearborn professor Joe Lunn has spent 45 years studying the African experience during World War I, which helped him connect a celebrity with their ancestor’s story on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.” (Photo courtesy of Joe Lunn) 

But Diop’s situation was different. Looking through primary historic documents for PBS, Lunn said 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 said it was to obtain full citizenship.

Before Diop enlisted, Lunn said there were political debates on whether 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 2 million Africans were pulled into the First World War and there are so many reasons of why and how they got there,” Lunn said.

He said 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 1975 trip to Sierra Leone in 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.

“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 said.

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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,” Lunn said. “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 said “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 longtime 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.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

My most memorable moment at UM-Dearborn was the spontaneous student memorial service organized by the Black Student Union for my friend and colleague, Professor Ahmad Rahman, two days after his death. Hundreds of students, faculty, friends and family attended, still in shock and grieving and though many were invited to speak, including myself, it was his former students who attested to the many ways he had influenced their lives I remember most.

What can’t you live without?

I can’t live without a sense of discovery and the exhilaration that comes from it. Having spent a lot of time with my newborn grandson recently, I realize the interaction by humans trying to make sense of their surroundings is a process that begins from the moment we’re born and continues throughout our lives. I feel most alive and observant when I’m interacting in a culture or situation I don’t fully understand; I become most bored repeating routines with which I’m familiar.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

Although I like the open architecture of the atrium in the CASL building, my favorite “place” on campus is the moment that occurs repeatedly in a particular locale — the classroom. When classroom discussions introduce others to novel ways of thinking about themselves and the world around them, they are truly inspiring.

What inspires you?

Courage inspires me. As a student, I witnessed the personal sacrifices many made for their ideals — African Americans, women, Native Americans, gays, and anti-war demonstrators. As a faculty member, I’ve often been inspired by my colleagues — by the former freedom rider, by the cancer victim, who taught classes despite undergoing chemotherapy while he lectured, by the Black Panther, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit — who all made significant contributions to the UM-Dearborn and the larger community. And as a professor, I’ve been awed by the courage of my students — by the recent immigrants speaking different languages, by those with severe physical disabilities, and by my students during the COVID-19 pandemic — the first responders, the jobless, those caring for children or aging parents — all determined to pursue their educations despite formidable challenges.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus,” the sequel to “Sapiens,” which are macro studies of humankind’s past, as well as meditations about our species’ future.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Aside from my parents, the sixth-grade teacher who insisted I join the debate team when I got to high school; by the university president who taught me about the ideal of self-governing public universities when I was a student leader; by two college professors who encouraged me to become an historian; and by my major professors in graduate school, one of whom helped me obtain my current position at UM-Dearborn, and the other who saved my career at a critical moment when no one else could.

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