The history of African Americans and other minorities serving in the United States Armed Forces is a complicated one of segregation and untold stories.
Benjamin Berry lived that history.
A 95-year-old World War II veteran, Berry served in the U.S. Army from 1943-45 in the 83rd Quartermaster Corps in Europe. Although he was in the fumigation and bath unit working behind the front lines, he saw active combat during the final major battle on the Western Front, the Battle of the Bulge.
Berry experienced discrimination in the Army and at home. His unit was segregated and all Black, except for the white officers, and served mostly white soldiers. He recalled being prevented from eating inside a diner in St. Louis because of the color of his skin in the 1940s — while in his military uniform.
But on Thursday as Berry sat beside a special exhibit at the ACES Museum featuring portraits of the seven African-American World War II veterans awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997, he said it gave him hope.
“There is hope that the future will be brighter because of men like these,” Berry said in the museum.
The exhibit, called “A Tribute to Black Patriotism,” was on loan from the Pentagon, said Dr. A.V. Hankins, who runs the small museum in Germantown.
The exhibit is made up of the official portraits of the seven men, which were depicted carved into a rock face. A Medal of Honor was pictured below the men’s faces; words at the top of the picture read: “‘Duty, Honor, Country, Freedom, and Justice.’ The Seven African American Medal of Honor Recipients World War II (1941-1945).”
“You can’t help but be moved,” Hankins said about the exhibit and what it represents.
The museum shares space in Hankins’ office where she practices internal medicine on the first floor of a building along Germantown Avenue. The location is significant: Former Parker Hall is located on the second floor, which was a United Service Organization site for African-American families during World War II. The hall is currently closed.
The exhibit has been prominently displayed in Hankins’ waiting room for weeks beside other exhibits and artifacts, including those honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government. The medal is presented by the president to members of the Armed Forces who go beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.
Then-President Bill Clinton awarded the medals in 1997. First Lt. Vernon Baker was the only recipient still alive to receive the award. The other Black men honored were Staff Sgt. Edward Carter Jr.; 1st Lt. John Fox; Pvt. First Class Willy James Jr.; Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers; Lt. Charles Thomas; and Pvt. George Watson.
“It’s long overdue, but nevertheless it did come to fruition,” Berry said. “And it’s an honor to have it here.”
The nonprofit museum was incorporated in 2000 and works to preserve this history of Black and minority veterans in World War II. But Hankins said the museum is multicultural and features all races, and was intended to provide positive examples to young people.
“This is a social vaccine against the drug culture, against glamorizing peripheral, fluffy people,” she said.
The museum is made up of a handful of rooms filled with thousands of artifacts, memorabilia, and items that feature both the proud, positive images of Blacks and other minorities in the Armed Forces, as well as the racist representations and discriminatory practices of the time.
Another recent exhibit at the museum features images and information of World War II veterans who returned to the United States and fought in the Civil Rights Movement, such as Medgar Evers, Daniel Inouye and Hankins’ own father, Tommy Hankins.
Hankins said the Medal of Honor exhibit, which is on display through Dec. 26, tells a story that’s beyond race.
“It is a Black soldiers story, but it’s also a family and multicultural story,” she said. “And that is the story of the United States of America.”
If you go The ACES Museum will also hold a Veterans Day event from 12 to 7 p.m. on Sunday at the museum, 5801-3 Germantown Ave. The museum will be open and there will be heated tent outside, where there will be food, live music, and more. The event is free.