Preserving the legacy of the African-American Soldier

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers magazine

Much of our military history is lost in anonymity. Unless a person was a leader or played some pivotal role in a battle or event, his name is lost in the tide of greatness. Though standout individuals shape history, their contributions may never have been possible without the support of lesser-known people.

The Army was segregated during World War II, and as Americans we hear many stories about famous segregated units like the Tuskegee Airmen and the 761st Tank Battalion, as well as individuals like Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who served as commander of the Tuskegee Airmen. But the legacy of the individual Soldier was often lost when he returned from war.

Luckily, there are people like George Hardy Jr., who makes it his business to collect and preserve as much “anonymous” history as possible. About seven years ago, Hardy started collecting World War II memorabilia associated with African-Americans. His collection began with a few items his father, George Hardy Sr., had brought home from the war.

The collection evolved from a few personal items to a dedicated room in his basement containing hundreds of photographs, three distinct uniform displays, Soldiers’ personal effects and even a replica radio playing 1940s-era music.

“I started to gather up some of his things — pictures he had of World War II, experiences he had in (the war) — and then I discovered many of his friends who used to come to our house when I was a kid were actually World War II veterans as well,” Hardy said. He asked his father where those friends served and discovered they had been in different theaters across the globe.

“It kind of peaked my interest because there is so much information on African-Americans that were Tuskegee Airmen, or the 761st Tank Battalion or even perhaps the 92nd Division that fought in Italy. So the perception was that either you’re in one of these three units or you were just generically in a service unit, and what I sought to do in creating this museum was to dispel the myth that we were sort of kept in a box,” he explained.

Family ties

Hardy and his wife, Rochelle, have been married for 23 years, living in their Maryland home for 20 of those years. They met at Howard University through a mutual friend, and are focused on family: their two grown children and two granddaughters.

“His mother and father have been married for 56 years and they are an amazing couple, still very much in love after those 56 years, and they are really an example of what married life is all about,” Rochelle said, explaining that Hardy is a product of his parents.

He and his father are very close, she added, and that closeness helped to spark his World War II collection.

George Hardy Sr. served in the Pacific during World War II, and had left active duty by the time the younger Hardy was born. However, he kept his field jacket and combat boots in a utility room and his son would wear them to take out the trash in bad weather.

“As a kid, I was really into World War II movies and I really, really thought that those items he brought home from the war were precious items,” Hardy said. “Somehow or another, that interest waned, and it picked back up again about six or seven years ago.”

Hardy’s collection started with family memorabilia: a picture of his father in uniform and a picture of Rochelle’s uncle, also in uniform. From there, Hardy began to scour eBay and flea markets for collectible items tied to African-American Soldiers. He bought and traded for photographs, distinct unit insignias, uniform pieces, unit yearbooks and day-to-day items that would have been found inside a footlocker, like shoe polish and pipe tobacco.

“When I started out, of the things I thought were interesting were the different patches, the unit patches that the pictures would show,” Hardy explained. “So I would take a magnifying glass whenever I acquired a picture and look very closely to see if I could identify the unit that these guys were associated with. Subsequently, I would buy the patch and put it underneath the glass.”

As the collection grew, family friends and members of their church offered up memorabilia to donate.

“Several deacons in our church … were Soldiers in World War II, and when they knew of George’s collection, they shared with us (some photos they had),” Rochelle said.

One person donated a picture of her father in uniform, as well as his dog tags. Hardy conducted some research for her and found out her father was part of an aviation crew that flew cargo over the Himalayas.

“It was a way of bringing a story together for her and connecting the dots so she would have a better remembrance of her father,” Hardy said.

Preserving history

Hardy’s passion for his collection is not only based on preserving family histories, be it his own or that of other’s, but also on ensuring the public at large has a comprehensive and detailed look at African American military history. As large as Hardy’s collection is, he is always interested in what may have been destroyed during family moves, or forgotten with time.

“As a part of our culture, we don’t often assign real value to military memorabilia or our service in the military, or things that are historic … so a lot of that stuff was discarded. So, to have this kind of a collection that is evidence of our service is vitally important,” he explained.

Rochelle agrees that it is a significant collection, especially for young people to see, because it represents the struggles and obstacles African-Americans had to overcome, in particular the Soldiers who fought in World War II. They were battling two wars: one overseas against the enemy, another at home against prejudice.

“Many of us have achieved success in our lives and many of those successes have been (due) in part to the contributions that our ancestors have made for us,” Rochelle said.

When the men came back from the war, they left a legacy of strength with their families and communities, Hardy said, embodying the values they learned in the service.

“They were good citizens, they took care of their families, they were pillars in the community, they were serious about discipline,” Hardy said, recalling the character of his father and other veterans, who he considered role models.

“As I began to hear stories about black men not working, or negative stories about what black men can or cannot do, I would recall those images of strong black men who were serious about taking care of their families and about keeping the communities together,” he said.

Hardy developed a no excuses philosophy from those examples and hopes his collection will inspire others in a similar way.

“I think it’s important for us to all recognize that wherever we are, it didn’t start with us, it started with somebody before us,” Hardy said. “Look backwards and try to see what your real basis is, and I think that will be inspiring to you because you recognize that some folks had to deal with some incredible things and (overcome) some incredible odds and hardship in order for us to be where we are.”

Editor’s note: To view the Soldiers Radio and Television piece featuring George Hardy, visit http://www.dvidshub.net/video/136077/army-now-jan-30th#.Tzp0syP9BoM.

To find out more about African Americans in the U.S. Army, visit www.army.mil/africanamericans.