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Celebrating Black History Month: African-Americans say civil rights were here all along

February 27, 2012

Special to the Standard

NORTH KINGSTOWN – When James Lynch, an Army veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, was stationed in Germany from 1963-67, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, he and other soldiers of color were unaware of what was going on back home.
“When the bulk of it was taking place, our news was still being censored,” he recalls of the military media including the Voice of America radio station and the Stars and Stripes newspaper. “The true facts only got to us through letters and magazines like Ebony.”
Black soldiers and high-ranking officers including himself, Lynch explains, “were pretty close-knit – patriotism and flag-waving. It [the Civil Rights movement] got by us. I didn’t realize till I got back what was going on. It took a few years to understand that what we’d been getting was filtered.”
When he returned to America and was stationed in Oklahoma and Texas, Stokely Carmichael was making headlines “but it wasn’t as prevalent.”
Lynch, now 80, and his wife, Mary, came to Rhode Island in 1971 where he was senior artillery adviser to the National Guard. He retired the next year with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel after 20 years of service.
Unlike African-American servicemen who faced
segregation in earlier wars, Lynch was recognized and promoted.
“I was drafted at 22 [after
RIGHTS, from 1
attending] college for a year. I found the military to my liking and I stayed.” He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska and a master’s from Roosevelt University in Chicago. After retiring from the military, he obtained an MBA from Bryant and became director of human resources at the Biltmore Plaza.
“I retired from there after 10 years and I’ve been relaxing since 1988,” he laughs.
From the minute he and Mary settled in a beautiful home in the north end of town, Lynch encountered no racial barriers or discrimination.
“I found North Kingstown to be very, very much colorblind. I’ve been playing golf in a league here for 20 years and I’m the only person of color. I play at Quonset and there’s no system to keep people out.”
The Lynches – she was a staunch Democrat and he’s a Republican – also found themselves embraced by the close family of those committed to local public service.
“We met Mel and Ben [Melvoid and Arnathia Benson], Violet and Charles Daniel, Eleanor Slater. Mary got instantly involved in politics; it took me longer.”
Mary Lynch joined the Democratic Town Committee and served on the Board of Canvassers.
Her husband answered the call, too.
Lynch was asked to serve on the town’s Assessment Board of Review and remained for 16 years. He was then appointed by Governor Bruce Sundlun to the State Board of Elections but left when Lincoln Almond was elected. It was a brief absence: Almond quickly named him to the Ethics Commission where he served for 11 years, five as chairman.
He remembers that Ken Carter, then in the House of Representatives, “called and asked me to be on the Rhode Island Advisory Council for Veterans Affairs,” another post he held for a half-dozen years.
Since the death of his wife, he has kept busy with the Masons in Providence and works with the dyslexia program for the Scottish Rite. He’s also deeply involved in his church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Providence, where he’s on the usher board and works in the food bank every week.
In 2008, Lynch was cited by the statewide watchdog group Operation Clean Government for his “courageous efforts to promote honest, responsible and responsive government in RI.”
“I have zero tolerance for politicians who abuse the public trust,” he declares.
Mel Benson, who came to Rhode Island when her husband, a Master Chief, was sent to Quonset, has had a long career in public service, first as a lifelong teacher, then as a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives and now as a member of the North Kingstown School Committee.
She knows all about discrimination but has never encountered it here, although in recent times she has fallen victim to ageism.
“I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee,” she says. “It’s the hub between Nashville and Memphis. We’re famous for Al Gore; his father was our senator.”
She attended a historically black college, under the United Negro College Fund. After marrying Benson, she traveled to his various deployments – Puerto Rico, the Antilles, Guantanamo Bay – and everywhere they went, she taught in Navy schools.
When they ended up in Rhode Island, she recalls, “Louise Day Hicks was raising sand in Boston [but Civil Rights news] was very much censored in the Navy Times.”
She encountered no prejudice during her years teaching elementary school and was encouraged by many to get involved in the town’s political life.
“That’s why I love North Kingstown so,” she declares. “I thought they had the most wonderful government; it was fascinating to go to town meetings. People could go and express their thoughts about their money and how it should be spent. You were judged by the content of your character.”
Her hero and role model was the great black orator from Texas, Barbara Jordan.
Teaching was rewarding – she says “all of my students have gone on to do very well and they never forget me” – but seeing women in public office was inspiring.
Benson retired from teaching in June 1990 and was elected to state office.
“My first day in the House was the day Sundlun had to close the credit unions. I was immersed in deep politics. There was more integration in state government then than there is now.
One of her proudest accomplishments is her early involvement with planning the development of Quonset, especially the rehabbing of the old Keiffer Park into modern housing.
“I was there in the making of all that,” she states. “It was well-developed because they worked with the community. [Local] people were on the board.”
The daughter and niece of African-American soldiers who suffered segregation during World War II, Valerie Morgan Addison was treated no different from all the other kids growing up – and her father, David, became a pillar of North Kingstown civic activity.
He co-founded the local Babe Ruth baseball league and was a member of an integrated bowling league – the only black player on his team. He was so beloved that when he was diagnosed with leukemia, the entire town gathered for a fundraiser to help defray medical expenses; after his death, the Babe Ruth trophy was named in his honor.
When Valerie Morgan attended NKHS, she recalls, “We all went to Earnshaw’s after the games for burgers and Cokes. There were more minority kids because of the Navy but only two in my graduating class.”
There was, however, nothing taught about the Civil Rights Movement, black literature or black history although by the time her daughter, Kimberly, got to school it was part of the curriculum.
Her mother, Elizabeth, who had been the youngest of seven children born in the South, was raised in New York. She took her children on a visit to Virginia and they were shocked.
“She tried to prepare us but everywhere we went – theaters, restaurants – there were only people of color. To us, it was very strange.” She and her siblings hadn’t been exposed to the separate-but-equal rules of the South. “We didn’t know exactly how to act.”
Despite her mother’s Northern upbringing, Morgan says the early exposure to discrimination was “a scar that never goes away.”
Valerie Morgan graduated from Johnson & Wales with a degree in business and worked in the University of Rhode Island textiles department for 42 years. In 1999 she won the Staff Excellence Award from the URI Foundation.
“I was the first person of color to receive it,” she says proudly.

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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