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Black military veterans recount 'in-your-face dividing lines'

By Anya Litvak | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: February 14, 2016

Charles Culliver left Pittsburgh at the age of 18 on a Pullman railroad car headed to Louisville, Ky. It was 1958, 10 years after President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. military. Mr. Culliver had volunteered to serve.

It was his first time away from home. When he awoke on the Army base his first morning, a drill sergeant was screaming in his face but his attention focused on a sign above a water fountain.

“Coloreds only.”

It was a sign in more ways than one.

“There were just in-your-face dividing lines,” Mr. Culliver said of his time in the service.

When younger soldiers came to him to ask what to expect, he’d say, “The books are stacked.”

“It’s still out there, in the new Army,” he said Saturday at a panel discussion at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

Mr. Culliver served in the Army for six years. When he returned to Pittsburgh in 1964, a few months after the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination, he noticed that a traditionally whites-only public pool now had black swimmers. It was a detail he remembers to this day.

Mr. Culliver was the eldest panel member at the Annual African American Heritage Celebration at Soldiers & Sailors. The event, which recognizes the history of black veterans, is in its sixth year, but last year was the first time its organizer, John Ford, convened a panel of “black veterans with success” to celebrate the “99.9999 percent of African Americans that fought in a war but don’t have their names in lights.”

“We cherish them just as we cherish those that were known as the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers,” Mr. Ford said, referring to a group of black pilots in World War II and black soldiers who protected settlers and fought Native Americans in the West after the Civil War.

The panel, which included Mr. Culliver, Leon McClain, a commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, and Paul Johnson, a staff sergeant in the Army, convened against the backdrop of an exhibit curated by Mr. Ford called “Slave to Soldier.” It traced, through original documents and artifacts that are part of Mr. Ford’s personal collection, the evolution of African Americans’ service, first as property and later as free, if not always equal, soldiers.

Mr. McClain and Mr. Johnson said they hadn’t encountered blatant racism in their military careers, but hinted at a some obstacles, especially as black officers progressed through the ranks.

“I stand before you a black Coast Guard officer — we’re kind of like a unicorn,” Mr. McClain said.

“You’re always on stage. People are always taking pictures of you — mental pictures.”

That means that everything depends on your integrity, which, once you lose it, it’s gone forever, he said.

Mr. Johnson said he’d noticed a type of nepotism in the service, one not necessarily reliant on race but on familiarity.

“It didn’t matter if you were black, white, you still had the good ol’ boy network,” he said.

The event hit an emotional note when Stormie Miramontez, a widow of Sgt. First Class Victor Miramontez, read a poetic plea for better veteran care, referring to her husband’s sudden death in 2012 and what she thought was poor treatment by the Veterans Administration.

“I’m offended at the way Pittsburgh treats our soldiers and veterans,” she said.

“They can squeeze you in in about six months, so look alive, soldier.”

Mr. Ford sympathized — he said one of his uncles contracted Legionnaires’ disease at the VA hospital in Pittsburgh.

Though he never enlisted, Mr. Ford grew up in a military family, hearing his uncles talk, and not talk, as war veterans tend to do, about the service.

The story that sticks out most vividly in his mind is of white soldiers during World War II telling the locals in Germany that black people had tails.

How humiliating that must have been for the black soldiers fighting in Europe, Mr. Ford thought.

“Of course, it worked out to their benefit because all the women wanted to see if that was true,” he joked.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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