In a room inside Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, retired historian and panel moderator John L. Ford Sr. began the largely positive 7th Annual African American Heritage Celebration with scathing words for President Donald Trump.
The vast majority of black voters did not back the Republican candidate, said Mr. Ford. For that reason, he continued, Trump supporters believe the president owes no favors to black people. “But since he’s commander in chief of our army, he owes us for the years of enslavement ... and so many of our people fighting wars.”
Mr. Ford then segued into a brief history lesson, highlighting influential black military members, including Crispus Attucks, a martyr of the American Revolution, and Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who eventually became a sea pilot during the Civil War.
But Saturday’s event — “Black Veterans with Success: Their History and Commitment to Excellence” — focused on the stories of two women, Sgt. Haya H. Eason, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, and Cpl. Denise Donae Hughey, a veteran of the Marine Corps Reserves.
“It was a conscious decision to represent women,” said Sean Sasso, director of public relations and development for Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. “Every year is about African American heritage, but we felt women have not been accurately represented.”
Perhaps that is because not enough black veterans are comfortable sharing their stories, said Ms. Eason.
Ms. Eason, who specialized in administration and personnel records, said she has not always been proud of her service, due to her background as a teenage rebel upon entering the Marines. Her father had served in the Korean War, but never spoke of his experiences, further augmenting the “void” she felt in the black veteran narrative.
To combat her father’s unwillingness to share, Ms. Eason now regularly visits Bethel Park School District, where her daughter studies, to discuss her positive experience in the military.
Ms. Hughey also shared a positive personal history serving in the reserves, but noted that her family background differed greatly from Ms. Eason’s. She looked up to her nephew and cousins, who sometimes shared stories about their time in the service, and enlisted after her freshman year of college.
Not only did she learn leadership and how to work under pressure, she said, but this was the first time she had to get along with people of various backgrounds, disparate from her own. Ms. Hughey noted it was the first time she interacted with people of Hispanic background and members of the LGBT community.
A common thread throughout both women’s stories, though, was a lack of structure for wartime survivors experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s another side of military service that we don’t know how to talk about,” Ms. Eason said.
Previously, she had been afraid to attend the Veterans Breakfast Club, an exercise in oral histories, because she felt the group of primarily white men would not welcome her to the table.
Finding exactly the opposite, attending has been healing for her, Ms. Eason said.
Before opening up the panel to questions, Mr. Ford rounded out the afternoon by honing in on the idea of safe spaces for storytelling. This annual celebration of black contributions to the military is all the more important, he said, because it is a place to share the black experience.
“Even though you don’t see ‘whites only’ signs, you still see it driving through Oakland, to the Hill District and Downtown,” he said. “But we continue to fight for our youth.”
Courtney Linder: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707. Twitter: @LinderPG.