For the first time in its 62-year history, and coinciding with the annual celebration of African American History Month, the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center officially unveiled its new mural featuring the contributions of African American men and women in the U.S. military on February 3.

The exhibit, located on the 3rd floor of the War Memorial Center, documents African American participation in all of the wars fought by the United States. It reflects a national history with images like Crispus Attucks, the first American to die in the American Revolution, Colored Union Troops, Buffalo Soldiers, veterans of both World Wars – including the 6888 Female Postal Battalion, and troops from Desert Storm.

“It’s so important to tell the stories of African American veterans,” said Otis Winstead, Executive Director of Great Lakes Dryhootch and Project Coordinator. “The War Memorial Center does a fantastic job bringing in students to learn the stories of our servicemen and women. We wanted to make sure to put a spotlight on an often-overlooked part of our nation’s history.”

The exhibit was the result of a collaboration between Great Lakes Dryhootch, the Center for Veterans Issues, The National Association for Black Veterans (NABVETS), Milwaukee NAACP, Wisconsin Black Historical Society, the Social Development Commission, and the Medical College of Wisconsin. The mural was sponsored by Gorman & Company.

“We’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time. It’s critical that we all honor the contributions of African American service members who played a pivotal role since the birth of this nation in protecting the freedoms we all cherish,” said Dan Buttery, President/CEO of the War Memorial Center.

Derrell Greene, a Wisconsin native and retired Lt. Colonel in the United State Army, was contacted by James Lindsay from the Center for Veterans Issues (CBI) for help to collect pictures for the special exhibit. Greene poured through history books to compile images and supporting information for the mural, to display the many accomplishments by African Americans.

“I think the most important thing about the mural is that it shows a piece of our history that’s been left out of our books,” said Greene. “It gives our community an opportunity to see some of the great people that have served our country, and also enables the young people to understand that everybody participates in the armed services.”

The focus on reaching Milwaukee’s youth of color was an important component of the memorial wall, in order to show heroic figures who they could relate to and be inspired by. The overall purpose was to show people how Black Americans have contributed to the nation through their military service, which cost many their lives. For some people it will be an education. For others it will be a reminder of what their parents or siblings did to serve, and their sacrifices.

“This mural is the first major recognition of African American service in the state of Wisconsin, and here in Milwaukee. Not being part of this would have been a big omission for me. So I’m really honored and proud to be involved in the event,” said retired Major General Marcia Anderson. “When I look at the mural I see men and women who were ordinary, who were your next door neighbors, who decided to take a leap to take a risk. I’m intensely proud to be part of that history, and be part of that legacy.”

As the keynote speaker for the dedication event and native of Beloit, Anderson became the first African American female Major General in the United States Army’s history in 2011. That distinction included the National Guard and the Army Reserve. She retired in 2016.

“I knew the day that I was promoted to Major General I was part of an amazing tradition,” said Anderson. “But a lot of people had never heard the stories of those who preceded me in history, did not know about their sacrifices, and did not know about the things they overcame. And so I felt a great deal of responsibility that day, not only to do a good job when I was promoted, but to make sure I educated people about our history.”

Mayor Tom Barrett Proclaimed February 3, 2020 as African American Veterans Day of Honor in Milwaukee, by recognizing that “African Americans have served honorably and fought tirelessly on the frontlines of every American war, and acknowledges the extraordinary dedication and sacrifice made by our African American service members.”

Rotating story boards are also displayed across the mural to depict the events, background, and history of Black Wisconsinites who served. Included in the inaugural series were Michael McGee Sr., Marvin Pratt, Lloyd Barbee, Clayborn Benson, William (Bill) Taylor, and Marcia Anderson.

“I was a very shy young girl,” added Anderson. “And if I had not joined the military and I had not been presented with some of the situations and challenges that were offered to me, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I would still be that quiet, shy little girl, afraid to take risks, afraid to try new things or meet new people. The service allowed me to find things in myself that I did not know existed. So I would say to any young girl in Milwaukee, go for it and pursue a career in the military.”

Lee Matz

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