The following is a guest post by 2019 Junior Fellows Kim Windham and Patricia Glaser, who worked with the Veterans History Project (VHP) this summer.
As a community-driven archive where all veterans’ histories are valued, the Veterans History Project (VHP) has collected more than 110,000 veterans’ narratives of their time in service. All of these collections provide valuable information to researchers, not only regarding historical events, but also daily life in the armed forces. As Junior Fellows, we were tasked with researching African-American veterans in the VHP archive and creating a tabletop exhibit for the annual “Display Day” event, held at the Library of Congress on July 24, 2019.
Reflecting on the experience of sharing the contents of our table with colleagues and the public on Display Day, we discovered that our time as Junior Fellows resonated with the tabletop exchange of culture evinced by the veterans we had researched.
The primary challenge of this project was finding a way to convey VHP’s collection of oral histories in a visual format in our tabletop display. We illustrated the voices we heard in the archive with the collections of African-American veterans: World War II photographs by Ellis Ross and Johnny Butts, poetry by Korean War veteran Dr. Christopher Bell, Jr., photographs by Dodson Curry from his Korean War duty station in Japan, and the “sweetheart” pillow Louis Douglas brought back with him from the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. (While the pillow is no longer a type of item that VHP collects—our scope excludes textile artifacts due to storage and preservation constraints—it was a charismatic addition that grabbed people’s attention and shone a spotlight on the “Forgotten Theater” of World War II.)
These objects set the table for conversations with our colleagues at the Library of Congress and Display Day visitors about the experiences of African-American veterans at war. One visitor to our display immediately recognized that one of the Dodson Curry photos had been taken in Japan and was able to translate a sign visible in the image’s background—it was advertising a “shoe shiner” business. Another visitor, upon seeing the CBI pillow, told us about a relative who had also fought in that theater as one of Merrill’s Marauders. Yet another visitor had stumbled into Display Day unknowingly–he was visiting from England. As we talked about our work, we learned that he was deeply interested in veterans, in the UK and the US, and their treatment upon returning from service. We also met several veterans, both Library of Congress staff and patrons, who expressed interest in wanting to contribute their own oral histories to VHP.
Several of World War II Army Master Sergeant Ellis Ross’ snapshots were used as examples of the influence of travel on African-American veterans’ experiences of self-discovery, sightseeing, and cultural exchange. Pictured above with his camera, dining at the family-run pensione where he lived during his sojourn in Italy, Sergeant Ross’ images also illustrate the centrality of the table as a means of connection and communication.
The oral histories of African-American veterans in the VHP archive attest to the cultural exchanges that many veterans celebrated in their oral histories after serving in conflicts throughout the 20th century. During the Vietnam War, Army Sergeant Ernest Parrish recalled spending his leave living in the home of a German family, for whom he cooked Christmas dinner. Army Major Patricia Ellison, a Persian Gulf War veteran, laughed, “I did get a chance to travel around Germany… The beer was good, and they drank a lot of beer. When in Germany, do as the Germans do!”
For many African-American veterans, cultural exchange began at the table, but the relationships developed over shared meals lasted longer than any deployment. The Accardi family, pictured above dining with Ellis Ross, inscribed a photograph in 1943, “To our dear and good friend Ellis that he will not forget them that remember always.” Army Lieutenant Colonel William Calbert stayed with a Dutch family during World War II, then returned years later to vacation with them. Air Force Master Sergeant Larry Dillon appreciated that his service “exposed me to different cultures, different customs, different people… I have friends all over the world, and in every country, in Japan—Japan was one of my favorite places—in England and in Germany and in Thailand. So, it’s just nice to know that if I want to take a trip, there are people that I can go see.” These warm cultural exchanges, preserved in the archives of the Veterans History Project, all began at the table.
Likewise, the excellent exchanges at the Veterans History Project table on Display Day inspired us to continue the conversation in this blog! We are so grateful to have been a part of the Junior Fellows Program and the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, where all veterans have a seat at the table.