Philly veterans of color keep their history alive

What war you or your family fought in led to the choice of what memorial you went to for Veterans Day.

But at 11:11 a.m. on Wednesday, a group of black veterans and their supporters chose to gather around the memorial that pays tribute to veterans of color who fought in all U.S. wars.

“We were an essential part of every war that took place on this land,” said Staff Sgt. C. Brown, 50, who spent 11 years in the U.S. Army — serving with the Airborne, the Rangers and as a drill sergeant. “We did it because we are Americans.”

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Soldiers gathering at the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors have a special reason to be proud — they organized to bring this memorial to the Parkway in 1994.

“When it was commissioned, it was supposed to be here. The aristocrats of the city didn’t want it, so they stuck it back in the woods in Fairmount Park,” said Sgt. Carl Hankerson, 72, a Marine from 1960 to 70 who served in Vietnam. “It was behind Memorial Hall — where the Please Touch Museum is now. We used to play all over it when we were kids, we didn’t know what it was.”

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Members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity who were instrumental in getting the Memorial to Colored Soldiers moved out of Fairmount Park to the Parkway were also celebrating Veterans Day at that memorial.

“It was legislated to be at 21st and Vine,” said Omega member Michael Roepel. “But the art commission and fathers of the city were not going to have black soldiers on the parkway.”

With then-Mayor Ed Rendell’s help, Omega members got the statue restored and relocated to its location before the Franklin Institute.

Other men celebrating Veterans Day were not themselves veterans, but were portraying their veteran ancestors. That was the case for Tom Davis, 68, who portrayed his great-great-grandfather — a Civil War soldier who fought with the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, John Collamore.

“He was born Moses Cockrell, but a lot of runaway slaves changed their names to join the army,” Davis said. “Even in the army, you could still be snatched back into slavery.”

“We want to make sure this story is being told.”

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