Black veterans honored as liberators

November 11, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

They sat side by side on the platform of Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church last night -- a Holocaust survivor and a black veteran who helped liberate Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

Said Regina Spiegel, a survivor of several camps: "We are grateful to you, African-Americans willing to fight, and other soldiers, who laid down your lives to crush the tyranny of the Third Reich."

Eight Holocaust survivors from the Annapolis area were present at the event, the first such tribute ever organized on this scale, said Don Aronson, co-chairman of the African American-Jewish Coalition of Anne Arundel County, which sponsored the evening.

William Snowden Keyes, a black veteran and public school teacher to whom the tribute was dedicated, said he was a stand-in for "all the other black soldiers who didn't have any opportunity at all to be honored. I feel very good about it."

Blacks and Jews joined one another in the pews, shaking hands and exchanging hugs. They hummed "God Bless America" as the organist played.

They rocked to the rhythm of an old Protestant hymn and grew quiet under the sway of a Hebrew melody. After introductions and numerous standing ovations, Mr. Keyes began his address.

Mr. Keyes spoke about the pain of having served his country without recognition, one of thousands of black soldiers who never made it into the history books. He recalled racism in boot camp on U.S. soil, when white officers sneered, "We don't salute niggers here." He spoke of the practice of loading black soldiers into the ships first, so they would be the first to die if the ship were torpedoed.

"That's true," he said.

Keynote speaker Col. Gorham L. Black III, retired commander of Fort George G. Meade, spoke about the black servicemen who have been a "positive thread throughout the history of our country." He noted a black was among the first to die in the Revolutionary War, and praised the 1.8 million black soldiers -- or one out of every seven soldiers -- who served in World War II.

Colonel Black recounted the discrimination suffered by his own father and other black soldiers in the Army. "This is an opportunity to educate a new generation about the horrors of racism" at home and abroad, he said.

As Mr. Keyes recounted the experience of entering a concentration camp, "the horror we saw, the bodies laid out at Dachau," one of the Holocaust survivors retreated to the lobby. "I shouldn't have come here tonight," she said. "It brings it back."

But even as blacks and Jews shared past pain, they rejoiced as people who have suffered and survived. "In a bond of Judeo-Christian history, we are all one under God," said the Rev. J. R. Williams, pastor of Mount Moriah.

A color guard brought in the flags; the Mount Moriah choir sang "Amazing Grace"; and all the veterans present, both black and white, received certificates of appreciation.

Yehoshua Redfern, cantor of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis, sang a Hebrew song taken from Psalm 133: "How good it is for brothers to dwell together in peace."

"It is our hope," said Matthew Thomas, program chairman and U.S. serviceman, "that this event will be a catalyst between each ethnic, cultural and religious community in this county and the world."

Said Ms. Spiegel: "As survivors of these camps, we salute you, our liberators."

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