Forgotten heroes

Everyone knows D-Day – the first day of the Normandy invasion of France. But how many know about the U.S. Army’s 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, whose job was to protect soldiers landing on the beach? The 320th was a 621-man assault force that raised hydrogen-filled barrage balloons as a barrier against strafing enemy aircraft. Every one one of those 621 men were African American.

Few books and no movies tell the story of the Balloon Battalion and that’s why the only book about it is called “Forgotten: The Untold Stories of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War.”

February is Black History Month, and this year its theme is “African Americans in Times of War,” making this an ideal time to read the book, written by Linda Hervieux and published in 2015.

African Americans have been brave fighters in every American war and fought even though, in many cases, they either weren’t wanted or were in segregated units, as were the Balloon Brigade. If you don’t understand what that meant, an easy way to find out is to see the movie “Glory.”

In Milford, we are reminded, if we wish to be, of the plight of black Americans because we have the story of Harriet Wilson, author of the novel “Our Nig,” a thinly disguised novel of her life in Milford. Thanks to the efforts of local people, especially JerriAnne Boggis of the Harriet Wilson Project, we have a statue of Wilson in Bicentennial Park on the banks of Railroad Pond. Wilson’s book, and the statue, should serve as a reminder that things are certainly better for black people today than they were in Harriet Wilson’s time, than they were in Woodrow Wilson’s time.

But African Americans still face discrimination. Some forms of discrimination are notorious, like the shootings of unarmed black men and boys. Police officers, for all the wonderful work they do — especially in communities like ours — are not immune to prejudice, i.e., they can fall into the trap of “pre-judging” people based upon the color of their skin or previous dealings with them.

For a look at the current state of life for black people, read Matt Taibi’s “I Can’t Breathe,” about the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. It is a troubling book and while one can certainly argue that Garner might have been breaking the law when several officers took him down – he was allegedly selling “onsies,” or single cigarettes – the book paints a picture of severe over-reaction because of Garner’s race.

So, sure, African Americans have come a long way, thanks to the policies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the Civil Rights marches, the leadership of men like Martin Luther King Jr., but the fact that we need a Black History Month is testament to the lack of standing black people have in this country. Our history books, our history classes, are fraught with the tales of heroic white men — even some white women, although not all that many – but surely, in the more than 200-year history of this nation, there were black people whose stories want telling.

Of course, we could say much the same about Asian Americans who built our railroads, but they weren’t precisely slaves, just often treated as such.

We can’t change history but we can acknowledge it. Doing even little things to celebrate Black History Month is one way. Go visit the statue of Harriet Wilson, or read “Our Nig” or “Forgotten.”