In the period when segregation and discrimination of colors were a thing, it was a challenge to get an education, a decent job, fair treatment, and respect from other nations. However, joining to fight for the nation that you wanted to fight for, too, would require some level of persistence. Something that Simon Perris, the only black Austro-Hungarian soldier, had when he braved the battle of the Great War.

A Patriotic Porter

There were not many detailed records on Simon Perris’ roots, but reports say that he was born and given the name Ali Mahmud either in Congo or Senegal. He came to Hungary as a little boy, where he became a servant for a Turkish man who resided in Budapest.

When his Turkish master died, Perris started to work as a porter at a cinema in what was then was called Nagyvárad (now Oradea). He was known to people for his fluent Hungarian tongue, which he often used to craft colorful insults. It was also said that the people of the city adored him for his good sense of humor and that he was also very patriotic and proud of Hungary.

“I want to fight for my homeland.”

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, one month after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were shot dead by a young Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. This became the beginning of the First World War. The decisive action against Serbia meant the country risked going to war with Russia, too, which was a Serbian supporter. A risk that Austria-Hungary was willing to take, given that Germany pledged its support to them.

Franz Ferdinand Archduke of Austria with family, 1908. (New-York Tribune, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many brave men rushed in to enlist, willing to fight for their country, including Perris. He was, however, not allowed to join the Austro-Hungarian army at that time. The reason being he was of foreign nationality. But Perris could not just sit at home while others were fighting on the front lines, so he kept on trying to apply, even appealing to the Secretary of Defense, saying,

“I am very ashamed that as a Hungarian I have to sit at home when others can fight. I want to fight for my homeland.”

Due to his persistence, he was eventually accepted into the army and fought alongside the other soldier on the Russian front in 1915, where he stood out and earned several military awards and even got promoted to the corporal rank.

Back home during that time, his photo was starting to circulate on the front page of various newspapers. They wrote stuff like, “a man with a completely black face is walking down the streets of Budapest in Hungarian military uniform” and began describing him as s szerecsen.