HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Through the violent wind and torrential rain of the F-4 Tornado that blew through the Pinebelt on February 10, 2013, an iconic landmark and pillar of history in the heart of Downtown Hattiesburg stood strong. The beloved African American Military History Museum in Downtown Hattiesburg suffered significant damage as a result of the tornado, but hope was not lost and history was not erased. Now, a full-year later, the African American Military History Museum is ready to re-open its doors as a stronger-than-ever tribute to the endurance of its heritage – the history and legacy of the African American soldier.
In celebration of Black History Month, the African American Military History Museum will reopen to the public with a Grand Re-Opening Celebration and Black History Month Kick-Off Program on Thursday, February 6 at 1pm. Honoring living WWII-era veterans, the program will put one of the most significant WWII artifacts on display front-and-center – the Historic USO Club building which houses the African American Military History Museum.
The USO Club opened on March 22, 1942 and was constructed by community volunteers who invested more than 40,000 hours in the project. It is estimated that tens of thousands of soldiers visited the USO Club during WWII, not to mention the hundreds of civilians who volunteered at the facility and fraternized during the war. It is currently the only surviving USO built exclusively for African American soldiers and in 2003 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"This museum represents many deeply-rooted sentiments across our community," said Retired Col. Sheila Varnado, President of the African American Military History Museum Committee. "Immediately following the tornado, the Committee launched a campaign to raise funds for the rebuilding of the Historic USO Club. To date, a total of $7,858.62 has been donated to the 'Rise Up & Rebuild Campaign.' There are so many who have cherished stories, fond memories and special connections to this building. Reopening these doors is a tribute to them, and to the tenacity of this community."
The African American Military History Museum was recently announced as a recipient of the highly coveted For My People Award presented by The Margaret Walker Center for the Study of the African-American Experience at Jackson State University. Awarded to individuals and institutions for their contributions to the public preservation of African American history and culture, the For My People annual award is named after Margaret Walker's classic poem, For My People, and past recipients have included James Meredith, Unita Blackwell, Robert Clark, Lerone Bennett, Andrew Young, Jesse Mosley, Reena Evers-Everette, and others. The award will be presented to the Museum today,Friday, January 17 during The Center's 45th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Convocation at Jackson State University.
"It is truly an honor to for the African American Military History Museum to be recognized in such a special way," said Latoya Norman, General Manager of the African American Military History Museum. "For the success and contributions of the Museum to be associated with individuals such as James Meredith and Reena Evers-Everette is truly remarkable, and is a testament to the commitment and dedication of Mrs. Iola Williams and the entire African American Military History Museum Committee."
Throughout the month of February, the Museum will host several special events to commemorate Black History Month, as well as, honor notable African American WWII Veterans and Civil Rights activists such as Medgar Evers. Sponsored by Community Bank, the month-long celebration will commence with a Grand Re-Ceremony on February 6 at 1pm at the African American Military History Museum.
"Black History Month is always a very important time for our communities to stop, remember, and honor African American Military heroes," said Rick Taylor, Executive Director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission. "This year, especially, we celebrate the history of the African American soldier, as well as the history, significance, and now, the restoration of our community's beloved USO Club building, which houses the Museum. We are thrilled to open the Museum doors once again in conjunction with our annual Black History Month Kick-Off program."
During the Grand Re-Opening Ceremony and Kick-Off Program on February 6, living WWII-era veterans will be publicly recognized and presented with a certificate of appreciation by Col. Varnado. Also during the ceremony, the African American Military History Museum will unveil a series of never before seen photos of the USO Club building, courtesy of the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby. The public is invited to attend, and any living WWII-era veterans in the area are encouraged to submit their information to the Museum by January 30 for inclusion in the program.
On Saturday, February 8, the African American Military History Museum will partner with the Historic Eureka School, a soon-to-be-completed Civil Rights Museum in Downtown Hattiesburg, to present Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till at the Historic Saenger Theater in Downtown Hattiesburg at 6:30pm. This one-actor, multiple-character original drama written and performed by Mike Wiley dramatically chronicles the story of 14-year old Emmett Till, a young boy caught in the cross-fire of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Tickets to this production are only $9 and may be purchased online at HattiesburgSaenger.com or by calling the Saenger Theater Box Office at 601.584.4888.
The African American Military History Museum is also proud to be the first to display a profoundly unforgettable exhibit entitled, This Is Home: Medgar Evers, Mississippi, and The Movement. Currently on display inside the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the exhibit will be featured inside the Museum through the end of March. Medgar Evers, a native of Decatur, Miss. was drafted into the U.S. Army during WWII. Upon his return from combat, he became a field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi and was catapulted into the Civil Rights Movement as an activist for voter registration, local demonstrations, economic boycotts and more. His reports to the national office, speaking tours and media interviews helped focus national attention on the intense social and political issues plaguing the state. On June 12, 1963, Evers was assassinated in front of his home in Jackson, Miss. The exhibit details Evers's passionate life and his continued fight for justice. This is Home: Medgar Evers, Mississippi, and The Movement is produced by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
On February 11, the African American Military History Museum will host an Opening Reception for This Is Home: Medgar Evers, Mississippi, and The Movement that will also feature a presentation by Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger whose re-examination of the Medgar Evers assassination case ultimately led to the 1994 conviction of Byron de le Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers. The Opening Reception will begin at 5:30pm on February 11 at the African American Military History Museum.
Alongside the exhibit on Medgar Evers, the Museum will also feature a small exhibit on Clyde Kennard, a close friend to Evers and a memorable figure in Mississippi's Civil Rights history. Also a military veteran, Kennard was denied admission into what was then called Mississippi Southern College (currently the University of Southern Mississippi) and was later convicted of stealing chicken feed with Johnny Lee Roberts. Following his seven-year sentence in the Parchment Penitentiary in Mississippi, Kennard passed away at the young age of 36 as a result of intestinal cancer that was not treated during his imprisonment. In 2006, Kennard was posthumously exonerated of the crime by Judge Robert Helfrich on the Forrest County Circuit Court.
On February 14, the African American Military History Museum will show an extra dose of love to veterans by unveiling three Purple Heart Reserved Parking Spaces at the Museum and displaying a collection of Purple Heart memorabilia from local Purple Heart recipients. The Museum will also host a small reception to honor Purple Heart recipients throughout the day. The Purple Heart Medal was originally named the "Badge of Military Merit" by George Washington in 1872. It is the oldest military medal in U.S. history and is either awarded to servicemen and –women who are injured in combat or to the family members of servicemen and –women who are killed in combat.
PFC James Jones, a Laurel native and member of the 761st Tank Battalion during WWII, will speak to guests at the Museum during a "Meet and Greet" event on Saturday, February 15 at 11am. During the War, the 761st Battalion engaged in several critical conflicts, including the Battle of the Bulge. As a result of their heroism, then-President Jimmy Carter awarded the Battalion with the Presidential Unit Citation for Extraordinary Heroism. During PFC Jones's presentation, The African American Military History Museum will present 761st, a documentary on the infamous unit, also widely known as the "Black Panther" Tank Battalion, which was the first African American tank unit to fight in combat. Several members of the Battalion, including PFC Jones, are featured in the documentary and share personal accounts of their experiences during the War. The public is advised that the documentary contains sensitive content.
To conclude the Museum's Black History Month celebrations, an Open Forum to "Remember Medgar Evers and Clyde Kennard" will be held on Saturday, February 22 at 11am. Led and moderated by those who knew the men personally, including Sgt. Major Ralph Lindsay and Lt. Col. Raylawni Branch, a rich discussion on their life and legacy will honor their mission for peace and justice during their time.
"This year's Black History Month events certainly celebrate all that this Museum represents – community, legacy and courage," said Norman. "We could not be more proud of the facility itself, and there is no greater way to honor its re-opening than by presenting quality programming that is dedicated to ensuring that the tradition and heritage of the African American soldier is passed down for many more generations to come."
In addition to the Museum's self-organized programming aimed to celebrate Black History Month, combined efforts with The University of Southern Mississippi, the Hattiesburg Arts Council and The Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association have produced additional events that celebrate the achievements and successes of notable African Americans throughout history. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer 1964, the Center for Black Studies at The University of Southern Mississippi will host a series of events that lead to The Freedom Summer 1964-2014 Conference in June 2014 – including a Freedom Day Re-enactment led by Southern Miss students on January 22 at the Forrest County Courthouse, beginning at 10am. Additionally, the Historic Eureka School will sponsor monthly Freedom Summer Dialogues at the Hattiesburg Cultural Center in Downtown Hattiesburg on the first Tuesday of each month at 11:30am, beginning February 4 and continuing through May 6. These Dialogues offer free admission and a boxed lunch for attendees, and will function as public forums to commemorate local historic events and honor veterans of the Civic Rights Movement.
Launching the Dialogue series on Tuesday, February 4, Anthony Harris, Hattiesburg native and author of Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round will speak on his experiences of growing up amidst the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement in Hattiesburg. Harris will also hold a book-signing for Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round, which tells the story of a young boy whose life is influenced by the movement that contributed significantly to his development and coming of age from childhood to adulthood. Additional information on the Freedom Summer Dialogues, Freedom Day Re-enactment and The Freedom Summer 1964-2014 Conference may be found by emailing email@example.com.
Throughout February, the "Images of Freedom Summer" photography exhibit that contains a collection of original photographs highlighting Freedom Summer 1964 by Herbert Randall will be displayed inside the Hattiesburg Cultural Center in Downtown Hattiesburg. Witnessed through the eyes of Randall, a young black male from New York, the photos chronicle the freedom movement in Hattiesburg, during the summer of 1964. The exhibit will be on display through March 4 and is open to the public with free admission. Randall's work has been exhibited at galleries across the country, including the Brooklyn Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Baltimore's Cultural Arts Gallery. In addition to the exhibit, a copy of Faces of Freedom Summer, a book compilation of Randall's photographs, will be on display inside the Hattiesburg Visitors Center.
A full schedule of Black History Month programming at the African American Military History Museum may be found on the Museum's website, HattiesburgUSO.org, and a photography timeline of the Museum's rebuilding process is featured on the Museum's Official Facebook Page, which may be viewed at Facebook.com/HattiesburgAAMHM.
Once re-opened, the African American Military History Museum will be open Wednesdays through Fridays from 10am until 4pm and Saturdays from 12noon until 4pm. Appointments may be made for Saturdays from 10am until 12noon and group tours are available upon request. The African American Military History Museum is a Hattiesburg Convention Commission Facility. Since 1991, the Hattiesburg Convention Commission has been developing, operating and promoting tourism-related facilities for the Hattiesburg area. For more information, call 601.450.1942.
Black History Month 2014 at the African American Military History Museum
- February 6 – Black History Month Kick-Off Event and Museum Grand Re-Opening
1pm at the African American Military History Museum
- February 8 – DAR HE: The Story of Emmett Till
6:30pm at the Historic Saenger Theater in Downtown Hattiesburg
Presented by the African American Military History Museum and the Historic Eureka School
- February 11 – "This is Home: Medgar Evers, Mississippi and the Movement" Exhibit
Opening Reception from 5:30-7pm at the African American Military History Museum
- February 14 – Valentine's for Veterans
10am-4pm at the African American Military History Museum
- February 15 – Meet and Greet: James Jones
11am at the African American Military History Museum