War Was Easier Than Racism Here

COMMENT

March 07, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM | BRIAN SULLAM,Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Beverly Nokes says the best preparation she got for serving in Operation Desert Storm came early in her life when she was one of the first group of African-American students to integrate the Carroll County schools.

For William "Joe" Brown, who is retired from Lehigh Cement and still lives in Union Bridge, the discrimination he witnessed as a soldier in an all-black combat unit fighting in Africa and Italy during World War II wasn't as bitter as the discrimination he experienced from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, which barred him from joining the organization for 45 years.

Ron Hollingsworth, Mr. Brown's nephew and a student in the first integrated class at Francis Scott Key High School, wanted to retreat from the white world. Rather than accept generous scholarships from the University of Maryland or Western Maryland College, he enrolled in all-black Morgan State University. When he graduated in 1962, Mr. Hollingsworth was in the white world fighting in Vietnam as one of the Army's few black lieutenants. He was quite upset when he discovered his commanding officer was sending him out into the bush more frequently than his white counterparts.

Stories like these poured forth during a recent forum at the Historical Society of Carroll County.

Although the ostensible topic for the evening was the service of African-American Carroll countians in the military from the Civil War to Desert Storm, virtually all the speakers addressed the question of discrimination. They all said that dealing with combat was easier than dealing with a society that continues to discriminate -- in increasingly subtle ways -- against African-Americans.

"I remember going into a store in Louisiana and storekeepers telling me that 'We don't serve your kind,' " said Mr. Brown, after the formal presentation. "I saw a buddy of mine getting a stomach-full of bullets from a policeman in Little Rock. There was nothing we could do about it. What could we do?"

The lot of the African-American in the U.S. military has always been hard, according to Jay Graybeal, the historical society's curator who spoke on the role of black soldiers in the Civil War and World War I.

The society has documented that about 75 black Carroll County residents fought in the Civil War. Initially, they served in labor battalions that constructed fortifications but later they were given weapons and found in a number of battles in the Wilderness Campaign.

Even though many black soldiers fought with valor and were wounded, when these troops returned home they weren't welcome in veterans' organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic. The blacks from Carroll County had to form their own post.

Virginia Johnson Williams, a stately 90-year-old who attended the talk, provided a link to the Civil War. Her grandfather John Cole was one of those veterans.

Nearly eight decades later, Mr. Brown found that he wasn't welcome at the Union Bridge post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Even though he had fought in the Africa and Italy campaigns that would have qualified him for membership, the organization -- from local officers to the national organization -- made it very clear he was not wanted.

For Mr. Hollingsworth, a tall man with a firm handshake who is studying to become a pastor, the discrimination he experienced as a combat officer in Vietnam was equally painful.

To avoid being drafted, Mr. Hollingsworth joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps. Immediately after graduating, he was made a second lieutenant in the Army, but he and 12 other Morgan grads did not receive their commission papers for another week. He later determined why. If the Morgan students had received their commissions on their graduation day, they would have outranked -- in terms of seniority -- the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy. The Army wasn't going to have a dozen black ROTC grads outrank West Pointers.

During his first tour in Vietnam, Mr. Hollingsworth received a Bronze Star. He commanded a remote artillery fire base that effectively used its howitzers and mortars to protect the 27th Infantry Battalion that was in danger of being overrun by Viet Cong. He left the base before he received his medal, and his commanding officer, who resented Mr. Hollingsworth, didn't bother to mention to him that he had been awarded one of the Army's top medals for valor. That slight still bothers him.

Ms. Nokes joined the Army reserves for the travel, pay and education benefits. She had no desire to serve in combat. Yet in December 1990, she found herself in Saudi Arabia. She was part of a medical detachment that treated soldiers for combat fatigue and stress.

Not sure of what to expect, she found that she had to dig deep into her experience. "Integration gave me the strength to deal with a new environment. It had been rough, but it had given me confidence," she said.

She also said that listening to others speak about their experiences, she realized that soldiers such as Mr. Brown and Mr. Hollingsworth "made it easier for me."

After serving overseas and seeing conditions in other countries, Ms. Nokes also said she had undervalued her American citizenship.

"America is the greatest place in the world, even though there is racism and social problems," she said. "We have to learn how to take advantage of the opportunities we have."

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