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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN â When the legendary Tuskegee Airmen â the all-black flying unit of World War II now being celebrated in the film âRed Tailsâ â returned from their heroic exploits, they were greeted by the sound of silence.
It took 60 years for President George W. Bush to honor the survivors with the Congressional Gold Medal, awarded to each elderly man in a 2007 ceremony in the Capitolâs Statuary Hall.
When Cpl. Thomas B. Morgan, whose service included time in Germany, returned from World War II, eventually settling in the family home on Pleasant Street, in Wickford, the same six decades passed before he received what was, to him, as good as national recognition.
It was his high school diploma.
âJust to see the pride on his face as he walked across the stage was wonderful,â recalls his niece Valerie Morgan Addison, who lives in the north end of town. He received the diploma, dated 1943, five years ago and died in 2010 at the age of 82.
When Thomas Morgan left high school to enlist and defend his country, he followed his older brother â Valerieâs father, David W. Morgan â into the U.S. Army. If he expected that
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somehow patriotism would trump racial discrimination and the military would be colorblind, that notion quickly vanished.
Although both Morgan brothers received promotions, the fact is that David wound up in the mess tents and Thomas in the laundry â the same sort of menial work that traditionally limited employment opportunities for African-Americans in civilian life.
âThatâs the way it was then,â says Valerie. âThey wanted to serve and they wound up in segregated units.â
In fact, she has a compelling group portrait of her fatherâs outfit, the 376th Engineer Battalion: 53 black soldiers and, front and center, three white officers.
David Morganâs service assignments might appear ordinary: He went in as a private, was promoted to corporal/cook; then mess sergeant and, ultimately, was placed in charge of setting up and running the field kitchen.
Upon closer inspection of the record, itâs clear that his work was anything but ordinary. He was also trained as a rifleman and a 2nd class gunner. There is also evidence that he was in the Ardennes Forest, serving under Gen. Omar Bradley during the ferocious German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge.
David Morgan made it through four-and-a-half years and was discharged at Point Camp Edwards, Massachusetts with the Europe-Africa-Middle Eastern campaign medal with three stars and the American Defense service medal.
Valerie was only 12 when her father died of leukemia but he had already created a legacy.
âHe did a lot for the town,â she states. âHe got the Babe Ruth baseball league started and coached the teams. My father was an athletic wonderâ who ran, swam and bowled on a league team where he was the only black member.
âMy father gave me my foundation for study. He would come home from work and sit down and do math drills with me. Even now I thank him in my prayers.â
Thomas Morgan became a corporal with the 463rd Quartermaster Laundry Company. Among Valerieâs collection of family artifacts from the war years is a photo of her uncle posing with two buddies in a rocky field in Germany.
Once he returned to living in the ancestral home on Pleasant Street, Valerie says, her uncle âalways had two or three jobs goingâ including working as a chauffeur and as a heavy machine operator for Electric Boat where he retired.
He became a local personality, walking around the village, chatting with everyone and picking up all the local news â so much so that he was given the nickname âthe mayor of Wickford.â
Valerieâs late husband Ted, a Vietnam vet, never talked about the war but he did share one thing: âMy husband said he didnât experience discrimination until he went into the service.â
North Kingstown School Committee member and longtime teacher Melvoid Benson understands this all too well. Her husband, the late Arnathia âBenâ Benson retired from the U.S. Navy after 27 years of service rife with inequality.
âWhen Benson joined the Navy they only had certain disciplines blacks could go into. During World War II it was a stewardâs rank, solely at the discretion of the officers. After the war, it was Truman who opened it up as a result of the commotion concerning the Tuskegee fliers.
âThen they started calling it âsupplyâ â getting the provisions, all the food for the shipsâ which was Bensonâs responsibility.
Her husband had âbroken service,â she explains, having left high school to enter World War II, then returning to graduate and start college. He disrupted his education again for the Korean War.
Benson retired with the rank of Master Chief, a significant accomplishment for a man of color.
âThe Navy was the last to give in,â says Mel. âIt was hardcore segregation. They talked about it but they made jokes out of it â jokes that werenât funny.â
Since Gen. Colin Powell became head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America has a black president, nobodyâs laughing now.
Except, maybe, the Tuskegee Airmen.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com.