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Nation’s troubled racial history recalled on Memorial Day in Amherst

Event also remembers sacrifices of families

  • Ray Elliott, 92, who served as a surveyor in a segregated engineering unit in the South Pacific during World War II, delivers the keynote talk at the Memorial Day ceremony Monday in Amherst. ERIC GOLDSCHEIDER

  • State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, speaks during the Amherst Memorial Day tribute held in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 754 on Main Street. ERIC GOLDSCHEIDER

  • Victor Nunez Ortiz, vice president of Veterans Advocacy Services, reads the roll call of departed comrades at the Memorial Day ceremony Monday in Amherst. ERIC GOLDSCHEIDER

  • Paul Clevenger, left, commander of American Legion Post 148, and Army veteran Rob McAllister, of Amherst, who served in Iraq, deliver the gun salute to fallen comrades during the Memorial Day ceremony in Amherst Monday. ERIC GOLDSCHEIDER



For the Gazette
Thursday, June 02, 2016

AMHERST — America’s troubled racial history, along with remembering the sacrifices of military families, were the themes at the Memorial Day ceremony on Monday.

Ray Elliott delivered the keynote address, speaking about indignities suffered by his father, William Elliott, an African-American soldier who served during World War I. He was a member of the 92nd Infantry Division, which was among the black regiments sent in response to the French government’s request for reinforcements.

The division was mainly trained for support services, “not to be fighting in the front lines,” said Elliott, and “no white officer was willing to command a black regiment because the stereotype was at the time that black troops were not going to be competent and that they were not going to follow orders, that they would run and retreat under fire, and that they were not courageous.”

The result was that the French offered to take the soldiers under their command and, according to Elliott, “they fought so valiantly that the French government gave my dad and his regiment the highest honor they could give for battle.”

Yet, when the elder Elliott returned home to Cambridge, his local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars “which at the time, of course, was very lily white,” refused to welcome him, Elliott said.

That prompted William Elliott to found the first black VFW post in Cambridge, which still exists, according to his son.

Ray Elliott, 92, spoke to a hushed audience of about 150 people in the hall of the Amherst VFW Post 754 on Main Street, where events were moved after the annual parade was canceled because of rain.

Elliott also spoke of his own experiences “serving in a segregated Army in the Second World War.” One of the stories he related was about being sent for training in Biloxi, Mississippi, where his commanders instructed the black soldiers to travel in pairs when they left the base to look out for each other, but not in larger groups, because “three is a crowd.”

Still, Elliott recalled the experience of fearing for his life when he was taunted by a group of whites who he regarded as “a lynch mob.”

Elliott, who sat down for the second half of his 20-minute speech as he joked about his age, received a sustained standing ovation at the conclusion.

Black soldiers monument

Retired Amherst College physics professor Robert H. Romer spoke about efforts to erect a monument in the West Cemetery to honor black soldiers from Amherst who fought during the Civil War. It was supported this year by Town Meeting with a $5,000 appropriation.

Romer explained that this undertaking began when he discovered that Christopher Thompson, a Civil War veteran, was buried in the cemetery but without a marker, “probably because a gravestone was a luxury that Christopher’s family simply couldn’t afford.”

The monument to be erected soon will serve three purposes, said Romer. “It will give Christopher the recognition he deserves.”

It will also alert visitors to the fact that a section of the cemetery was traditionally used for African-American burials and finally, he said, “It will indicate to visitors that a significant number of black men from Amherst fought for freedom in the Civil War.”

‘Service flag’

Other speakers included Rebecca Fricke who told the audience about a “service flag,” she is making as part of a group called the Fiber Artists of Western Massachusetts. It is hanging in the museum of the Amherst Historical Society in the Strong House on Amity Street.

She said it was inspired by a flag displayed at the North Congregational Church bearing stars for each of its congregants who had served during World War I. It has 12 blue stars representing men who served, three blue stars and red crosses representing women, and two gold stars representing men who died in service.

“This started me thinking, what if we had a service flag like that for Amherst now? How many stars would we have on the flag? Who would those stars represent?” explained Fricke.

As a result, she is asking members of the community to come forward to share personal stories and short biographies of people from Amherst who have served in the military. Each of them will be represented by a star on the flag.

“I’m up to about 30 something names and I know there are many many more,” said Fricke. “I see myself now as the flag lady — this is what I am going to be doing.”

As people bring her more names, she places them on the museum label next to the flag.

Monday’s program also included songs by the Amherst-Pelham Regional High School chorale, and short speeches by state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, and Steven J. Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services. The master of ceremonies was Amherst Select Board member Douglas Slaughter.

Story said she has known Elliott, who is a former president of the local chapter of the NAACP and former member of the Human Rights Commission, for 35 years but has never until now heard him tell some of his war stories. She told him, “I, for one, would be delighted to listen to as many war stories as you have.”

Victor Nunez Ortiz, the vice president of Veterans Advocacy Services, read the roll call of departed comrades.

Eric Goldscheider can be reached at eric.goldscheider@gmail.com.