African American Cultural Center of Long Beach searches for stories of local Black military heroes for exhibit

Malcom Treadwell (fourth from the left) served as Chief Aviation Mechanic in the VP-65 Squadron of Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. This photo was taken sometime around 1961, and later donated to the Long Beach Public Library by Treadwell’s wife. ( Courtesy of the Long Beach Public Library)

The African American Cultural Center of Long Beach (AACCLB) is asking local African American residents to share their families’ military histories for a new permanent exhibit.

“If you have a military hero in your family that you think we should include, please, please reach out,” Judy Seal, a member of AACCLB’s Finance Committee, said during the center’s semi-annual meeting over Zoom on Tuesday, April 27.

Recognition of Black military members is long overdue, with many veterans having been denied promotions to higher ranks and awards during their enlistment. Segregation was an everyday part of the armed forces until the practice was outlawed in the military in 1948.

Infamously, Nazis who were captured by the United States government during World War II were treated better than Black US troops. Among many other examples, Nazis were able to sit in better train cars than Black US troops when traveling, and could drink from water fountains Black soldiers were barred from. 

Despite the discrimination they faced by the same government they were fighting for, approximately 1 million African Americans served in WWII, and African American women held volunteer positions in significant numbers.

Besides serving in active duty and combat, African American workers also significantly contributed to the war effort in civilian roles.

The former Long Beach Naval Shipyard, which operated from 1943 to 1997, played a major role in attracting African American families to the area during the Great Migration, a period of time from 1915 to 1970 where over 6 million African American people left southern US states and relocated to cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West.

“The naval shipyard was seen sort of as a place to make a better living, to provide for their families and their children. So my mom and dad packed up in late 1939 and made their first visit to Long Beach with my dad seeking work at the Naval Shipyard,” Sharon Diggs-Jackson, AACCLB chairperson, said. 

Renee Marie LeBeauf was a Long beach resident who joined the Navy in 1972, and served for four years. (Courtesy of the Long Beach Public Library)

She noted that, by 1950, around 40 of her family members had migrated from Alabama to Long Beach and Southern California.

“The naval shipyard– it opened doors for so many of our African Americans and it provided the type of jobs, and the security and the ability to be able to purchase a home that they had been looking for. Our Long Beach Naval Shipyard has played a significant role in the African American development here in Long Beach,” Diggs-Jackson said.

Although the AACCLB doesn’t have a permanent location yet, it will start the beginning stages of organizing the exhibit while at its temporary home in a space provided by Evelyn Knight.

“This is a permanent exhibit, and so, though we are in a temporary location right now, we are still going to focus on the first stage of bringing those heroes to light which will also involve having some conversations– conversations with vets,” Tasha Hunter, interim president of AACCLB’s Board of Directors, said.

The exhibit will be funded by a grant awarded to AACCLB by the Long Beach Navy Memorial Heritage Association in 2020. The grants are awarded to “qualified historic preservation projects in the City of Long Beach,” according to the Long Beach Community Foundation’s website.

The exhibit will recognize individuals in the Long Beach community, as well as others outside of Long Beach.

“It was exciting to be able to apply for this grant where we’ll get to recognize our military heroes, our Black, our African American military heroes that helped us get and receive some of the liberties that we have today,” Hunter said. 

The AACCLB can be contacted by calling (562) 276-0818 or by emailing info@AACCLB.org

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