In the early 1990s, I stumbled across an article about the 761st Tank Battalion, an African American battalion that saw active duty on the European front for more than 180 consecutive days during World War II. There were many casualties and they were genuine heroes, but the men received few of the accolades that other non-black men received upon returning home. How did I not know about these men and their service? I had studied American History. I knew about the Tuskegee Airmen. How had these men served so bravely and yet their contributions were almost unknown? How must it have made them feel? Almost invisible, I assumed. It sparked my interest and a story — and a character named Meriwether — was born.
As I researched more, I came to understand how many African American soldiers who returned home to the South after World War II were treated so brutally that they became fearful of displaying their uniforms and medals out of fear for their lives and for the safety of their families. Their mistreatment and the lack of genuine freedom they encountered when they returned to the South was part of what promoted the migration of African Americans to the West and North and also helped to fuel the Civil Rights movement. The story grew bigger to include these facts.
Also, when I was growing up during the 1960s, watching footage of marchers and freedom riders — some of whom were white — I had always wondered what had made these men and women risk their lives and safety. What had occurred in their lifetimes that made them sensitive to matters of justice and equality? The story got even bigger as I imagined Gabriel, a boy who would grow up and become a marcher or freedom rider.
The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA is about all of these things and more. It is the summer of 1946 in the town of Birdsong, South Carolina, when Meriwether, an African American World War II veteran, saves Gabriel, a white boy, from being hit by a car. Gabriel repays Meriwether by getting him a job at his father’s auto repair shop and gas station as a mechanic, but the sweet new job comes with something sour: Lucas, the other mechanic, is a bigot with possible ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, Meriwether begins to make a name for himself as a fine mechanic and a friendship between Gabriel and Meriwether blossoms. Before long, Gabriel learns that Meriwether has kept the fact that he was a driver in the 761st Tank Battalion a secret because it’s unsafe for African American veterans to talk about their service. The story comes to a head when Meriwether and his family come face to face with danger.
But why am I telling this story now? When is the right time to know about more of the contributions that African Americans have made to our country? When is the right time to question why many of these contributions have been hidden in the landscape of such monumental events as World War II? Is there ever a wrong time for the truth? When is the right time to promote human friendships that cross manmade boundaries? Is there ever a wrong time to promote kindness and caring and acceptance and compassion?
There is never a wrong time, is there?
And so, I am now sharing The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA with young readers to give them knowledge of the much-ignored historical facts about the men of the 761st Tank Battalion, who so bravely served our country and who deserve to have their stories told.
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