'Veterans of Color' stories bring history alive at Manatee County Central Library

BRADENTON -- History came alive for the several dozen people gathered in a quiet meeting room in the Manatee County Central Library Saturday. They were transported back in history to a time when colored soldiers were treated as inferior to their white fellow combatants.

They trained separately. They lived in separate quarters. Blood supplies were even labeled by race.

The audience watched a screening of the documentary "Veterans of Color" featuring real accounts from local veterans of some the adversity they faced during the times they served.

Following the screening, a panel discussion featured Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. George Hardy from the film, along with the filmmaker and Ringling College of Florida professor Mark Parry and Korean War veteran Sylvester C. Meyer.

The panel was moderated by Manatee County's head of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Lee Washington.

"When I was in the services, I heard stories of struggle," Washington said during his introduction. "Seeing all this play out on the screen means a lot to me. We have come a long way as a nation, but we have more room to grow."

The three veterans spoke of their personal journeys leading them to the military.

"The last thing I wanted to do growing up was go into the military. I wanted to be an engineer," Hardy said.

"I majored in math in high school," Hardy said. "But World War II started and that changed everything."

His parents refused to sign off on him joining the U.S. Navy, because of the racial situation.

"A lot of people don't realize how rigid the segregation was," Hardy said. "The Army had it down to a science."

Hardy and Meyer recounted their own experiences of segregation, as many of the veterans in the film did. Colored soldiers had their military orders labeled as such to assure they ended up in the colored barracks, they said.

"When I went into the service, blacks couldn't supervise whites," Hardy said. "But by the time I got out, I was a master sergeant and all my pilots were white."

Parry spoke of what led to create the film.

"The idea behind of this was that the Library of Congress was doing a video project about the history of veterans," Parry said. "We got half way through, we did 32 interviews, and said, 'You know, there are some really good interviews here that we could put together.'"

Hardy was asked if he had experienced any "colorism" when he enlisted, since he was light-skinned colored man.

"Oh yes, you ran across that. I had to endure it from both sides," Hardy said. "I didn't experience it growing up, because I grew up in a mixed neighborhood, but it surprised me from some of the people I got it from in the service."

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.