Giving New Meaning to the term “Color Guard”

On the 80th Anniversary of D-Day, a writer recalls the contributions of Black men and women in the military—and the art that has been inspired by their service

| 06 Jun 2024 | 01:17

As we spend this weekend, remembering the heroism of D-Day, I am remembering those who so many have forgotten.

Obviously, the story of racism in the ranks is not new. But some things are changing, and many are worth remembering. Culture, as is often the case, has been ahead of the game. Spike Lee’s 2008 film, Miracle at St. Anna, dealt with members of the U.S. Army’s all-black division stationed in the Tuscany region of Italy. Twelve years later, Lee made Da Five Bloods, in which a black squad returns to Vietnam to find the remains of their leader.

In his current best-selling memoir, filmmaker Ed Zwick recalls the moment when he realized what his film, Glory, should be about. It was while observing Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ famous statue of the 54th regiment in Boston, dominated by a white man— Colonel Robert Gould Shaw— on a horse. But what Zwick noticed were the bronzed faces of those behind that man. “It was the first time in history that African Americans were portrayed publicly and heroically, their heads held high with solemn purpose,” he recalls. “I would be given the chance to bring it to life.” Among other awards, that film won Denzel Washington his first Oscar.

Next up in the screen world: Six Triple Eight. This is Tyler Perry’s story of the Second World War’s only Women’s Army Corps unit. Kerry Washington leads a large cast, including, yep, Oprah. The film focuses on the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, which contributed to the war effort in a unique way: by sorting through a three-year backlog of undelivered mail and delivering the mail to American soldiers far from home. In the face of discrimination, these 855 women brought hope to the front lines. “No mail, low morale” was the motto they gave themselves, and they fulfilled the promise of delivered mail—17 million pieces of it!—and morale when the United States needed it most. The film will be on Netflix this year.

Actor/producer Blair Underwood is reportedly trying to make that same story as a stage musical. I saw Underwood in A Soldier’s Play a few years back in New York, which, of course, also deals with blacks in uniform. And last month, I found myself one morning at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Hamilton still sells out every night. On that particular day, there was not an empty seat either, but this was a Coast Guard event: a Changing of the Command, which was notable for naming Captain Zeita Merchant, former commander of Sector New York, the first black woman to become a Rear Admiral.

There was not a dry eye in the house, or, as Hamilton’s creator would say, this was the room where it happened. Speaking of the nation’s largest port, and the man whose play has changed theatre forever, Merchant said, “these waters have seen the rise of commerce, the struggles of war, and the joys of peace. It’s where Alexander Hamilton envisioned what would become the Coast Guard. The principles remain the same.”

The event would certainly have engendered grateful tears from President Kennedy. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book An Unfinished Love Story, she details how enraged JFK was when he saw a photo of an all-white Coast Guard. He put his staff, including Richard Goodwin, on it. Sadly, JFK would not live long enough to see Merle Smith Jr. become the first African American Coast Guard Academy graduate to win the bronze star for his service in Vietnam.

In another new book, The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt, author Edward O’Keefe writes about when “Buffalo Soldiers” –African American cavalrymen in segregated U.S. Army units–were called up for the Spanish American War. “It offered the United States the first opportunity since the Civil War for Blue and Gray to fight as red, white and blue again,” he writes.

Speaking, as we were, of Broadway—and history—my lifelong hero was a woman named Helen Gahagan Douglas. She started on the New York stage, then became an international opera star, and later married actor Melvyn Douglas. When he enlisted in World War Two, Helen was elected to Congress from California. (Alongside a young man named Richard Nixon, who would later defeat her in the state’s most infamous U.S. Senate race) At one point, while in Congress, Helen famously filibustered, naming every black man who had served in the war. They had been ignored and forgotten, so she stood on that floor for days, to ensure that the names would go into the Congressional Record.

Douglas also integrated the house lunchroom and hired a secretary of color. I recently met former California Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the first black woman from the West Coast to have served in Congress. I mentioned to her that I was writing a play about Helen Gahagan Douglas. “She was my hero,” said Burke.

I thought Douglas would never have competition on my list, but after watching Zeita Merchant on that stage, smiling from ear to ear, and earning plaudits that any Broadway producer would kill for—I may now have a second heroine.