Dr. Urbane F. Bass
The University of Mary Washington’s Crawley Lecture Series, in cooperation with the Fredericksburg Area Museum, will present a program on October 24 on Fredericksburg World War I hero Dr. Urbane Bass. The speakers will be W. Douglas Fisher and Joann H. Buckley, authors of African American Doctors of World War I: The Lives of 104 Volunteers, on which the following is based.
Almost 100 years ago, Dr. Urbane F. Bass of Fredericksburg gave his life for his country in France during World War I.
This American hero was born in Richmond, Virginia, to Rose and Richard J. Bass. His father was a salesman – shoes and clothing in the 1880s, insurance in the 1900s. His mother stayed home with their six children. The family lived in Richmond on East Duval Street. Urbane worked as a clerk for his father while in school. In 1902, he graduated from Virginia Union University in Richmond. He went on to graduate from Leonard Medical College of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1906.
After graduation, he married Maude Vass, sister of classmate Rufus Vass. Initially, he set up his medical practice and pharmacy on William Street in Richmond. By 1909, he moved his practice and his family north to Fredericksburg, where he became the city’s first African American physician since Reconstruction. Bass’ practice was well received by the African American community in spite of the local hospital’s denial of privileges.
By 1916, Dr. Bass’ practice and his family were growing, but war was eminent, so this father of four wrote to Secretary of War Newton Baker offering his services. One of Bass’ friends, J. B. Morris, said, “Dr. Bass was dedicated to serving his country in a time of critical need. He knew our men were going to die in France and told me he would give his life to save them, if he had to. I could see the sincerity in his eyes. He was committed to the end.”
When America formally entered the Great War in Europe in 1917, a nationwide draft was created that would eventually include 400,000 African Americans. Dr. Bass was one of the 104 African American physicians who volunteered for service and completed training at a special Medical Officers Training Camp for Colored Officers in Fort Des Moines, Iowa.
Most of these African American doctors served in France with the 92nd and 93rd divisions, which were the Army’s first African American combat divisions. With the French desperately needing reinforcements for an army decimated by almost four years of fighting, Lieutenant Bass’s unit was quickly turned over to the French in early 1918. Having been issued French uniforms, helmets, and weapons, by June 22 they found themselves in the trenches on the front lines.
On October 17, 1918 during a heated battle, Bass was frantically working on wounded soldiers at a forward aid station under heavy German fire. He was hit with shrapnel when a shell exploded near him. Both of his legs were severed instantly, and he died before he was taken from the field.
For extraordinary heroism in action, Lieutenant Bass was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Following the war, his body was returned to the U.S. and now rests in “Officers’ Row,” near the entrance of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where he became the first African American commissioned officer to be interred there. He is also memorialized by a magnificent stained glass window in Fredericksburg’s Shiloh New Site Baptist Church.
The program will be held at the Renwick Building (previously the Fredericksburg City Renwick Courthouse), 815 Princess Anne Street, Fredericksburg, VA 22401 at 7:30 pm, October 24, 2017. It is open to the public free of charge. Please contact Melanie Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 540-371-3037 ext. 135 for questions.
When the Great Lives program opens its 14th season in January, it will have a new name. Originally titled The Chappell Lecture series, reflecting the instrumental role of John Chappell and his family in providing both the initial endowment and continuing support for the program, it will henceforth be called The William B. Crawley Lecture Series. The new title, instituted at the urging of Mr. Chappell himself, reflects the crucial role played by Professor Emeritus Crawley, who created the series in 2004 and has served as its director throughout its subsequent fourteen-year existence.
In announcing the change at the program’s kick-off reception at the Jepson Alumni Executive Center on October 18, Mr. Chappell noted that “the vision of bringing authors of outstanding biographies to talk to students and to the Fredericksburg public has been refined continuously through Dr. Crawley’s personal effort, and has become a widely recognized and highly successful model of university/community participation.”
Regarding his family’s advocacy for the name change, he continued, “We have long recognized Bill as the architect of the success of Great Lives and we are grateful. We feel the future of the program will benefit the more that his leadership is connected clearly to the Series.”