The Black Experience of Vietnam

In 1970, after spending two years in the sweltering jungles of Vietnam, Army Specialist 5th Class Andrew Boone came home. He arrived with a hip wound and the horrors of war heavy on his soul.

It was no grand return: Veterans were called baby killers, people taunted them as crazy and many couldn’t find jobs. In an Oakland, Calif., transfer station, Boone took off his uniform, folded it up and threw it in the garbage. For years, he locked Vietnam away.

Today, at 64, he’s speaking out, and the story of his return to Southeast Asia was recently featured in a documentary. He was also at the opening of “Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era.” The exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center offers the first comprehensive look at what the war was like for thousands of Black soldiers.

The U.S. military presence in the Vietnam conflict began in 1964. When it ended in 1975, more than 58,000 U.S. troops had died; 7,262 of them were Black.

Soul Soldiers is a tribute to men, who, in some cases, were snatched out of college or out of the nation’s Civil Rights Movement and shipped a world away only to arrive in the jungles with bunk mates who slept under Confederate blankets. When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, some White soldiers in Vietnam celebrated by burning crosses, putting on Klan costumes and flying the Confederate flag.

The exhibit re-creates that thunderous past through a compelling mix of photographs, oral histories, letters, diaries, music and other artifacts. In some displays, the soldiers’ boots still carry the mud of the battlefields. But it’s more than a war exhibit.

“It’s a social tapestry of how the Civil Rights Movement paralleled the experience of the Black soldiers,” says Samuel W. Black, curator for African American collections at the Heinz Center. “Many felt the real battle was fighting poverty and racism at home and not fighting some unknown enemy in Southeast Asia.”

The exhibition grew out of Black’s desire to get to know his brother, Jimmy McNeil, a man 16 years his senior who went to Vietnam in 1965. Black never had a chance to ask his brother about the war because McNeil was killed in New York in 1971, shortly after returning from Vietnam.

Black believed that others were just as curious about the African American Vietnam experience, so he collaborated with 21 veterans and nurses to develop the exhibit. Soul Soldiers showcases the effects of the draft on African American life and evokes strong emotional reactions even as it educates.

For instance, a display on veteran Michael Flournoy contends that many activists were drafted in a deliberate attempt to weaken the Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, Flournoy left Alabama A&M College to work fulltime for the Congress of Racial Equality. He was jailed for his activism in rural Louisiana. He received his draft notice while detained. He was 26.

“Who gets drafted at that age?” asks Flouruoy, who now lives in Pittsburgh. He adds that he suspected the authorities had sent his name to the draft board because of his activism.

Through news articles and a 12-minute documentary, the exhibit also reveals how the ’60s fueled an era of social militancy and exposed the deeply embedded poverty among African American families. The draft would affect both groups.

In 1966, President Johnson launched Project 100,000 — a plan to expand troops by lowering the mental and physical standards required for service. Much of the effort was concentrated in the Black community. The Army recruited from Job Corps. And individuals who had been deemed previously intellectually unfit for service were now drafted. One such man was Muhammad All, says Black.

Because Project 100,000 lowered the standards for recruits and draftees, many Blacks came into the military barely able to read. Once in Southeast Asia, these recruits mingled with Black militants who were already organizing to express racial solidarity.

So what happens, says curator Sam Black, is they begin to hear about the book Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver on Vietnam radio and began to study it, and other Black texts, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

“Just because they were fighting the war, the civil rights battle didn’t disappear,” says Black.

Some soldiers began demanding Black-only hootches, or barracks, which some called “hekula,” the Swahili word for temple. In another show of solidarity, they created these elaborate boot-lace bracelets, which some called slave shackles. They sang songs by the Temptations as they charged through the jungle.

The soldiers’ lives and habits did not stay confined to Southeast Asia and the spillover had a profound effect on American culture. One of the most obvious, says Black, was the dap, the intricate handshake and greeting that became increasingly popularized in street culture once the soldiers returned. In Vietnam, for each squadron of Black fighters, the dap was a deeply felt sign of respect. Each dap was as personal as a signature.

Out of their experience came such popular ’70s sayings as “Right On” and “Solid,” says Black.

Celebrities were touched by the war as well and the art they created in tribute to the soldiers shaped society and politics. Redd Foxx; Vida Blue, a popular major league pitcher in the 1970s and ’80s; actress Teresa Graves of Get Christie Love fame; and Sammy Davis Jr. entertained troops in Vietnam. In 1968, Eartha Kitt, on a visit to the Johnson White House, criticized the war and told the president the draft was fueling delinquency as young Black males were choosing to go to jail instead of to war.

One of the more poignant connections in the exhibit is the story of Marvin Gaye and his younger brother, Frankie, who served in Vietnam from 1965 through 1967.

Frankie Gaye wrote dozens of letters to his brother describing his disgust with the war. When he returned home, they’d sit up late at night and talk about his experience.

A strongly affected Marvin Gaye then penned his seminal 1971 album, What,” Going On, written from the perspective of a Vietnam vet. The tune “What’s Happening Brother” was a direct tribute to his brother.

Black singers such as the Shirelles, with “Soldier Boy,” and Freda Payne, with “Bring the Boys Home,” belted out anthems of support.

But these songs did not represent the only contribution women made. Though they never saw combat, women volunteered as nurses and served in WAC, the Women’s Army Corps, an auxiliary unit of the Armed Services that placed women in communications, administrative and medical roles during the war. They served on other fronts, as well.

Philippa Schuyler, a mixed-race piano prodigy turned journalist, put on makeup and posed as a Vietnamese woman and traveled around the country filing stories on how the war was devastating Vietnamese women and children. She wrote for the Manchester Union Leader, a conservative paper in New Hampshire. Previously, she had worked for United Press International. She died in a helicopter crash in 1967 trying to rescue children from an orphanage.

Soul Soldiers documents the heroics of the Black Vietnam veteran, says Janice Terry, who spoke at the exhibit’s opening ceremony. Her late husband, Wallace Terry, a Time magazine war correspondent in Southeast Asia, wrote the book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans in 1984.

“America knows the valor of the 54th regiment in the Civil War, the Buffalo soldier and the Tuskegee airmen,” she says. “It would be a disgrace for us not to honor the Black Vietnam vet. Now is the time.”

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