JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The United States entered into WWII in 1941. Allied forces went overseas fighting for democracy, formal equality of rights and privileges for all citizens. Yet at home there was racial discrimination. More than 1.2 million African Americans served during the second world war in all branches in segregated conditions. They were fighting two wars; one abroad and one at home. The efforts of those men and women lead to the integration of the Armed Forces in 1948. WWII paved the way for the civil rights movement in the 60s, a way paved in blood, pain and sacrifice.
With canes in hand, adorned in uniforms earned two men slowly recalled WWII while walking through an exhibit at MOSH. They reflected on a dark yet promising time pointing out familiar faces displayed on the museum’s wall. They were men considered less-than as they fought for democracy abroad and lacked the basics at home.
“Remember Eugene Harris,” said George McIvory, 91. “He was in Siaipan. He was supposed to have gotten the silver star for that.”
What appears as history to spectators enjoying the exhibit titled African Americans in World War Two is in fact a stroll down memory lane for McIvory and his best friend, Alpha Gainous.
“These are WAVES, remember the WAVES,” said Ivory as he turned to Gainous.
WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service were both white and black.
Their stroll is paused as all eyes are fixed on a familiar face, one of their own- a Marine.
“He was in the 51st,” said McIvory. “I was in the 52nd.”
McIvory and Gainous were among the first African Americans allowed to become Marines. The plan to discharge men like them after the war was foiled by the obvious- their capabilities were put on display when finally allowed to prove themselves.
"I dreamed all of my youth that I wanted to be a warrior,” said Gainous yearning to become a part something much bigger than himself, something at the time considered above his reach and race. “I called myself King Colly. I called myself Colly Colly black boy. I swore that I would be a Marine not knowing that I wasn't even allowed to wear that uniform at that time.”
By 1943 Gainous' dream would become a frightening reality. He was among the approximately 20,000 black men trained in a segregated camp in Montfort Point, North Carolina. They were subjected to rigid training in a swampy wildlife ridden forrest area in the new river.
"There were a tremendous number of African American's who enlisted,” said Paul Bourcier, MOSH Curator. “They weren't drafted they enlisted. They wanted to serve their country."
Bourcier explains that during WWII as African Americans fought abroad there was a movement underway at home which included the Double-V campaign.
"Victory abroad and victory at home," said Bourcier.
On display in the exhibit is a photo of A. Phillip Randolph and Eartha White who are both well known for their activism in Jacksonville.
"She's standing next to A. Phillip Randolph in the Chicago meeting where they were talking about marching on Washington," said Bourcier.
At the beginning of the war African Americans in the armed forces held support roles such as maintenance and transportation. By the end of the war more than a million African Americans were serving in the armed forces taking on prominent roles such as pilots, tankers and medics.
“We are respected around the world,” said Gainous. “Rising like the phoenix out of the ashes into a great society makes me feel that this is one of the greatest accomplishments that any human being could acquire.”
Gainous and McIvory will both celebrate their birthdays on November 15. They’ll be 93 and 92 years old. The pair have been best friends since grade school. The MOSH exhibit, African Americans in World War Two recognizing the contributions and achievements of African Americans during WWII will be on display until December 31, 2017.