IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Museum examines black Vietnam experience

"Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era," a new exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in Pittsburgh, examines the black experience in Vietnam in the context of social change in the U.S.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A pair of combat boots. A wristband woven from boot laces with several bullets dangling. A photo of black servicemen standing outside a makeshift African temple.

The items are part of "Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era," a new exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center that examines the black experience in Vietnam in the context of the era's domestic social fabric.

Samuel W. Black, curator of the center's African American Collections, conceived the exhibit, in part because his older brother, Jimmy McNeil, served two years in Vietnam.

Black was 4 years old when his brother was sent to Vietnam. He died in 1971, unrelated to the conflict, and Black said he really never knew what his brother's experience was.

Black found much had been written about the role of blacks in other wars, particularly the Civil War and World War II, but he found little about blacks in Vietnam.

As he began researching, he found the black experience in Vietnam was also linked to social changes on U.S. soil. The civil rights movement was in full swing. The Black Power movement was growing.

"Two things kind of stood out for me," he said. "One was the level of activism, political and social activism, on the part of African Americans in Vietnam. That was surprising to me. And the other was the presence of African American women in Vietnam" performing administrative, nursing and other duties.

Black Power organizations were active in Vietnam, he said. They weren't sanctioned, but they were not underground, either.

Movements in Africa
"What you begin to see through this movement in Vietnam is a connection, not only an extension of the civil rights movement, but also an embracement of the independence movement in Africa," he said.

One display in the exhibit shows a wooden carving of two fists with broken shackles, with red, black and green stripes at the base — colors associated with African nationhood.

Donald Harris was a young Army artilleryman fighting for Nui Ba Den, a strategic mountain, in 1969. Close to the end of the fighting, he said, a Vietnamese boy approached him with the carving.

"It really caught my eye. I traded him a case of C-rations," said Harris, 61, who lives in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg.

The carving spoke to Harris about black struggles, but he also saw it as a good-luck charm, he said. "When everybody went out that door, we rubbed it, even the white soldiers," he said.

Harris said he was naive when he went to Vietnam. He hadn't been out of Pittsburgh before and had never encountered racism until basic training. Once in Vietnam, however, he said he did not experience racism.

"All we cared about was coming back home or taking care of ourselves," he said. "We were soldiers. That was it in a nutshell."

Going beyond recitations of war
The exhibit has nearly 200 artifacts, including photographs, military uniforms, recruitment posters and letters and diaries from servicemen.

Black said he wasn't interested in doing an exhibit about war.

"I wanted to keep the focus more or less on the social aspects of life and the impact of the war," he said. "The war is sort of the background which all of this plays out."

The exhibit, for example, features songs such as James Brown's "Say it Loud (I'm Black & I'm Proud)" and Marvin Gaye's 1971 hit, "What's Going On."

The history center is also publishing an accompanying book, "Soul Soldiers," which will include narratives, essays, poetry, art and photographs.

The Smithsonian Institution, with which the history center is affiliated, is considering having the exhibit travel after its debut in Pittsburgh. The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, which lent several pieces for the exhibit, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, are also interested in hosting it.