By David Ruffin
Ethnic Heritage Museum
ROCKFORD – In spite of adversity and limited opportunities, African Americans have played a significant role in U.S. military history over the past 300 years. They were denied military leadership roles and skilled training because many believed they lacked qualifications for combat duty.
On Sunday, February 12, from 2-4 p.m. the African American Gallery of the Ethnic Heritage Museum, 1129 S. Main St., will unveil its newest exhibit saluting African American servicemen and women and their military units.
The “Saluting Black Military Units” exhibit spotlights the accomplishments of the Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines and the servicemen who served with Operation Red Ball Express.
This exhibit will feature the Buffalo Troopers MC of Northwestern Illinois. The Buffalo Troopers Motorcycle Club of Northwestern Illinois is a member of the National Association of Buffalo Soldiers and Troopers Motorcycle Club. The name Buffalo Soldiers was initially selected to pay homage to and ensure the legacy of African American military contributions in the post Civil War era.
The Buffalo Troopers of Northwestern Illinois was established in 2015 and is an organization of professional men and women that are dedicated to the sport of motorcycle riding and safety. The NABSTMC is an active participant in numerous charitable functions including supporting senior citizen homes, student scholarships and food and fund drives for charitable organizations, i.e. The March of Dimes and Toys for Tots. The NABSTMC has also taken the responsibility of mentors to area youth and educational programs.
The Tuskegee Airmen were America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. They are best known for the extraordinary efforts in the air war of World War II, and for challenging the stereotypes that had kept black Americans from serving as pilots in the U.S. Armed Forces.
In 1942, President Roosevelt established a presidential directive giving African Americans an opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps. As a result, approximately 20,000 African American recruits received training at Montford Point Camp during World War II. Once given their chance to prove themselves, this new breed of Marines prove to be just as capable. The men of the 51st and 52nd soon distinguished themselves as the finest artillery gunners in the Marine Corps, breaking almost every accuracy record in training.
Operation Red Ball Express was a famed truck convoy system that supplied Allied forces moving quickly through Europe after breaking out from the D-Day beaches in Normandy. In order to expedite cargo to the front, trucks emblazoned with red balls followed a similarly marked route that had been closed to civilian traffic. Of the drivers of this trucking convoy, 75 percent were of African American descent. The program came to a halt in November 1944. By that time, about 412,000 tons of various items, including gasoline, ammunition, oil, food and other needed supplies had been delivered by the Red Ball Express.
The “Salute to Black Military Units” spotlights members of the Rockford community who served in these units. They are Maj. Harris the grandfather of the Lawrence Mathews’ family (Buffalo Soldier); Col. Charles Young (Buffalo Soldier/Commander at Camp Grant); Van Horton (Jefferson-Horton American Legion Post); Fred Hutchinson, Jr. (Tuskegee Airman); Capt. Arthur Pitts (Tuskegee Institute/Camp Grant); Homer Hempstead (Montford Point Marines); and Robert Hearns, Sr. (Red Ball Express).
Uniforms on display are on loan from the permanent collection of Veterans Memorial Hall and Museum. The exhibit will run every Sunday, from Feb. 12 to March 19.
The Ethnic Heritage Museum preserves the cultural history of six ethnic groups that have contributed greatly to the development of southwest Rockford; African American, Hispanic, Irish, Italian, Lithuania and Polish. The museum is open every Sunday from 2-4 p.m. General admission to the museum is $5 per adult, $3 per student, or $10 per family. Admission is free to museum members.
The museum is handicap accessible with entrance on Loomis Street; on street parking available. There is additional parking in the lot on the corner of Main and Morgan Streets next to the Graham-Ginestra House.
Tours can be arranged by calling 815-962-7402. For more information visit ethnicheritagemuseum.org.