African American soldiers have fought for the nation’s freedom since the Revolutionary War; a local nonprofit now hopes to preserve and share their stories before they become lost to time.
In honor of Black History Month, officials with Pinellas-based Empath Health are conducting Veterans History Project interviews specifically for African American service members. The goal is to collect firsthand accounts of military experiences for future generations.
Specially trained veteran volunteers conduct intimate audio and video interviews with participants. Empath officials then submit the recordings to the Library of Congress, where they are physically and virtually archived.
Participants receive a DVD of the interview for themselves and others, a participation certificate and information on how to view the expansive archives in person or online. However, despite the project’s importance, Empath officials have found recruitment challenging.
“Veterans as a whole tend to be very humble and think that they don’t really have a story to tell,” said Trudy Beeler, veterans community partnership specialist. “They were just doing their job and answered the call to action.”
The Library of Congress (LOC) Veterans History Project (VHP) is now in its 23rd year. The idea was born at a Father’s Day picnic.
Congressman Ron Kind overheard his father and uncle swapping stories from their time in World War II and the Korean War, respectively, and realized the fleeting nature of those interactions. He grabbed a video camera to record their accounts, and that experience quickly became a national, grassroots oral history initiative.
The LOC archives the recordings, letters, diaries and photographs at its American Folklife Center. In 2016, new legislation expanded the VHP’s scope to include stories from family members of veterans who died during wartime.
Empath has collected stories locally since 2012, and Beeler, part of the nonprofit’s diversity, equity and inclusion team, noted veterans encompass several diverse demographics. She now hopes to highlight often underrepresented service members.
“Typically, African Americans have not been a population that has engaged voluntarily with our previous Community Story Days when we offer these opportunities to the public,” Beeler said. “Black History Month was approaching, so we really wanted to make a concerted effort that our African American Black veterans had the opportunity and the platform to share their service stories.”
In addition to the humility often exuded by service members, Beeler explained that the VHP previously focused on WWII veterans receiving care through Suncoast Hospice. That was to ensure the preservation of their stories before they passed.
She relayed a recent interaction with a third-generation Black service member “beaming with pride” as he listened to his late grandfather’s stories of the Korean War. Beeler asked if he was also a veteran, and he said, ‘yeah, but I don’t have a story.’
“But I can guarantee you, in future generations, his grandchildren would beg to say different,” Beeler added. “So, it circles back to that humility.”
She explained that many veterans discredit themselves due to a lack of combat experience or service medals. Beeler said their stories and experiences are still critically important to national history.
She noted how experiences could vary widely from one Army veteran to the next. Differing branches, demographics and service eras – like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – add to contrasting viewpoints.
The LOC requires recordings to be at least 30 minutes long. While some veterans are initially reluctant, Beeler said she has seen interviews go on for hours.
Once recorded, veterans and their families and friends can visit the archives in person or enter names into the VHP search engine. Beeler said the initiative prevents stories from getting “lost in translation” when passed through generations.
“Hearing it straight from the person’s mouth” and capturing a veteran’s emotions are crucial aspects, Beeler said. In addition, she believes the interviews, conducted by fellow service members with similar experiences, are “absolutely” therapeutic.
“We tend to find that people retire, they get less busy and some of their service memories bubble up and can be difficult to hold,” Beeler explained.
She recalled a Korean War veteran who would try to share his thoughts at a coffee group but could never finish without becoming overwhelmed with emotion. She offered him private space to record his story, and he spoke for over an hour.
“I’ve seen a real shift in his demeanor,” Beeler said. “He’s much more positive; and he talks glowingly about that experience.”
Empath Health has at least one more interview date set before the end of Black History Month, and VHP officials seek help recruiting more African American veterans. However, Beeler stressed that she is open to collecting those stories indefinitely.
She encourages hesitant veterans to reminisce about stories they heard from previous generations of soldiers and how that impacted their lives. Most of all, Beeler wants them to think about what their grandkids and great-grandchildren could gain from hearing firsthand accounts of their time serving the country.
“Because when our veterans are gone, their storytelling opportunities go with them,” she said.
For more information on participating in a Black History Month Story Day or future Story Days, contact Trudy Beeler at (727) 643-4939, or email TrudyBeeler@EmpathHealth.org.