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home : columns : dear harriette September 19, 2019

5/27/2019 8:14:00 AM
Harriette honors her father and uncle this Memorial Day

DEAR READERS: Happy Memorial Day! This is such a special day in our country. Flags are waving, and barbecue grills are fired up. Parks and yards are alive with the sounds of happiness and children playing. This day marks the start of the summer season.

But at its core, it represents so much more. Memorial Day is the day that our country remembers those who served in the armed forces and those who have passed on. Today is designed for us to take a moment and honor those people who sacrificed for our freedom. I want to invite each of you to stop and reflect: Who in your family served in the military? Who has left us and deserves to be remembered? Take a few minutes to write down what you know about that person. If you are headed to a family gathering, introduce the idea of everyone sharing memories of those who have passed on.

In my family, I remember the lives of my father, the Honorable Harry A. Cole, and my uncle, Wendell G. Freeland, Esq. Both served in World War II. Both were educated men who became officers. Both were nearly court-martialed because they stood up against racism.

I once heard my father and Uncle Wendell swapping their harrowing stories. My father was on a ship headed to Okinawa, Japan. He and a fellow officer were playing bridge when lunchtime rolled around. He wanted to finish his game, so he chose to go to the officers' mess hall to eat and continue playing. The problem was that this was in the time of segregation, and there was no colored officers' mess hall. While my father was an officer in the United States Army, he was not allowed to enter the all-white officers' mess. My father, a tall, dark-skinned black man, was asked to leave. When he refused, it caused a stir. He insisted he should be allowed to eat there, as he was an officer. The men under him learned of his situation, and came to his defense. Ultimately, my father stood down; he realized his actions could have created a mutiny. He believed he would be fine, but his men -- mostly uneducated -- might not fare well after the promised court martial.

Uncle Wendell, a white-presenting black man, had a similar experience. A Tuskegee Airman, his ship to Europe had docked in Hampton, Virginia. He and his fellow officers decided to integrate the officers' club on the base. Their strategy was to go into the club two-by-two, starting with the lightest-skinned men first. It worked until the darker-skinned officers approached. When the Virginia officers realized what had happened, Uncle Wendell and his friends were all arrested and shipped off to be court-martialed with the threat of execution -- all for integrating the officer's club! They were spared because a journalist got wind of the situation, wrote a story and drew attention to their plight.

These two men are heroes in my book for these actions -- and so many more. Despite being discriminated against, they served with honor in the military and throughout their lives. They exemplify courage and dignity. Today, I honor them.

Whom do you honor? Tell those stories to your loved ones. Reignite the memories. That's what this day is for!

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