Raleigh museum exhibit honors local WWII veterans

aspecht@newsobserver.comJune 8, 2014 

— Benny McKoy lingered in front of the photo showing a black World War II veteran under the words: Jim Crow’s Army.

“Do you know who that is?” McKoy asked a friend as he pointed to the photo. “That’s me.”

McKoy, who was born 95 years ago in a house on Old Stage Road, served as a typist in the administration branch of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war.

His story is one of several captured by the City of Raleigh Museum in its new exhibit, “Our War: Voices of Raleigh’s World War 2 Veterans.”

The exhibit opened Saturday morning after the museum held a ceremony to honor the veterans.

McKoy was one of several veterans who were seeing the exhibit that they were part of for the first time. Visitors surrounded McKoy and others for pictures and handshakes after viewing their photos.

More than 100 people showed up to the event, leaving only standing room to those who arrived after museum director Ernest Dollar began his speech.

2 years in the making

It took two years to put the exhibit together, Dollar said. The project took off with help from Joseph Holt, a veteran and Raleigh native who was the first to try to integrate local schools.

“We wanted to craft an exhibit where veterans told their stories,” Dollar said. “(Holt) dropped a list of veterans in our lap.”

Dollar interviewed 15 local World War II veterans over two years. He asked them what their lives were like before, during and after the war.

The exhibit focuses on how black soldiers were treated by white soldiers.

McKoy’s brother, Pedro, is quoted in the exhibit as saying white civilians in the United States were sometimes hostile to black soldiers.

“If they saw a soldier, a black soldier, they looked at him like he came from outer space,” Pedro is quoted as saying.

Benny McKoy said he moved to New York City after the war because he couldn’t find a job in Raleigh.

The exhibit “makes me think of all the progress we’ve made in life,” McKoy said. “Great progress.”

Millie Dunn Veasey was surprised to see a photo of herself on a wall honoring the 350,000 women who served during the war.

“Oh my goodness, look at that,” she said, putting a hand over her mouth.

Veasey was part of a segregated Women’s Army Corps unit sent overseas during the war. She was in the Army’s 688th Postal Battalion, which went to Birmingham, England, and Rouen, France, to help deliver mail.

“The mail had really piled up,” said Veasey, who described the morning as “bittersweet.”

The exhibit features videos, interactive displays and artifacts that local veterans brought back home from the war.

“I think it’s marvelous,” said Fred Hill, who stood in front of an 8-foot photo of him hugging his mother in 1943.

“I had just gotten out of boot camp when that was taken,” Hill said.

Hill, who served in the Navy, is originally from New Jersey but has lived in the area for more than 20 years.

Father’s experiences

The event attracted folks from outside Wake County, too.

Betty King, who lives in Oxford, attended the ceremony and viewed the exhibit as a tribute to her late father, Clifton E. King, who rode into battles on a tank.

Her father never talked about what he did or saw during the war, she said. So King was interested to learn about the experiences of other local veterans.

“I didn’t want the D-Day to go by without doing something to observe it,” she said. “I think it’s easy for people to forget what these days actually mean.”

Robert McMillan, a war veteran whose story is included in the exhibit, hasn’t forgotten those who died during the war.

The Raleigh native recited the names of his friends in the Cameron Park neighborhood who died.

“I still walk by those houses and think about it,” McMillan said in a speech during the ceremony. “Every neighborhood in Raleigh lost some people.”

The exhibit runs through 2016.

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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