February is Black History Month, a time to highlight the contributions and achievements made by African Americans throughout history.
But it’s an easy leap to say that for Lisa Daniels of Sacramento, every month is Black History Month and to go one step beyond: Every day is Black History Day.
Daniels turned what began as a college assignment in 1999 into her passion; and then into a nonprofit organization called “Unsung Heroes Living History Project/Preserving the Legacy of African Americans in the Military.” She’s interviewed more than 200 African American military veterans and collected thousands of photos to document their stories and secure their places in history.
She became a woman on a mission when, as a creative writing student at Chabot College in Hayward two decades ago, Daniels was tasked with learning something new about someone she already knew, and then writing about it. She chose her grandmother, Rita Hernandez, as her subject. She said, “Did I tell you I was a tack welder and blueprint reader on the Franklin Roosevelt?” “I said, ‘What?!!!’”
The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, its keel laid in December 1943, two years later became the second Midway-class aircraft carrier in the American Navy. Indeed, Grandma was a “Rosie the Riveter,” and the riveting stories Daniels heard for the first time made her wonder whose stories weren’t being told?
“I was baffled about not really hearing things about African Americans in the military and their contributions,” Daniels said. Only during Black History Month or around Veterans or Memorial days did their stories occasionally surface, she said.
It compelled Daniels to look deeper, to find African American veterans and, initially, to tell their stories in a book. Instead, it morphed into the nonprofit, which now includes a website and Facebook page that she uses to share the stories and experiences of African Americans in the military. Getting them takes plenty of legwork.
“I found incredible stories that weren’t covered in the media,” Daniels said. “People who I didn’t know welcomed me into their homes.”
Among them, Marie Holmes of Oakland, who spent eight hours telling Daniels about her time in the military.
Another, Odessa Taylor, described her service in the 6888th Postal Battalion – a group consisting of black women sent to England to help soldiers get their mail during World War II under the motto, “No mail, no morale.” “She met the Queen Mum, and she met an 11-year-old (future) Queen Elizabeth,” Daniels said. “She shook hands and curtsied.”
Daniels wrote about Anthony Clinton, who went to Maxwell Field in Alabama during World War II, expecting to be part of the aviation program. “When they found out he was black, they made him a janitor,” Daniels said. “His mom wrote a letter and hand-delivered it to the White House. The president (Franklin D. Roosevelt) wrote a letter back and allowed him to go back into the program.
Daniels met with a woman named Mariah Rucker whose brother, James Rucker, served in the military and became friends with famed African American poet Langston Hughes. They are pictured together in a photo from the Langston Hughes papers in the Yale University Library.
Daniels visited with Edith Roberts, wife of Colonel George “Spanky” Roberts, the first Tuskegee Airman who flew over 100 missions in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. He retired as a colonel at McClellan Air Force Base in 1968. He died in 1984. “His widow played the piano while I was in the house,” Daniels said.
Her organization has expanded to include the Fresno area, where Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Ron Vance is now that area’s coordinator.
Her work is by no means finished, nor is she satisfied. Daniel is in the exploratory stages of developing an African American military museum. “Why not have it here in the state capital?” she said. “We’re looking for a place. I’m writing grants. We’ll be having fundraisers. I’ve been entrusted by these veterans to tell their stories.”
While Black History might be celebrated nationally for one month each year, Daniels sees it as a never-ending adventure of a lifetime.