By BECKY GILLETTE
At the time that the East Sixth Street United Service Organization (USO) club operated in the 1940s, the military was segregated so there were separate recreational facilities, as well. Eight years ago that USO club was developed as the African American Military History Museum (AAMHM). Today it remains the only USO club of its type in the U.S. still in use and open to the public.
“Our museum is unique,” said Latoya Norman, general manager of the AAMHM, which is operated as a Hattiesburg Convention Commission facility. “The building was an historic World War II USO club for African American servicemen stationed at Camp Shelby who were training for war. We share stories of national and local heroes through 150 years of history. Through the timeline you can see the struggles and learn how African Americans overcame racial barriers. Even during the Korean War, which was the first conflict involving the integrated Army, there was a lot of resistance. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that we truly saw integration in the military.”
Things were a lot different back when the club was first established in 1942. But the museum goes back even farther than that starting with the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War.
While there is a lot of local support for the museum, it also draws a large number of visitors from elsewhere.
“We have tourists from all over the world who come to the museum,” Norman said. “We have a sign-in book for visitors. Since opening, more than 30,000 people have visited the museum.”
Norman said they also pride themselves on being a museum people of all ages can enjoy. The museum is normally self-guided, but guided tours can be arranged upon request.
“What is really unique about our museum is we have a lot of interactive exhibits,” Norman said. “Because it is military history, some people might think it isn’t kid friendly. But we have a lot of school groups that come in, and even pre-schoolers.”
One of the most popular exhibits for children is the Buffalo Soldier, which includes a replica of a life-size horse that children can touch and climb on. Visitors can get a picture of what it was like to be a Buffalo Soldier. Buffalo Soldiers originally were members of the U.S. Army 10th Cavalry Regiment that was formed in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The term Buffalo Solider eventually came to describe all African American regiments formed in 1866. They were also known as the “Negro Cavalry” by the Native American tribes they fought in the Indian Wars.
“Buffalo Soldiers were famous for their skills riding horses,” Norman said. “Children will remember more about the Buffalo soldiers and the role they played if they can interact with the exhibit.”
In March the museum celebrated the 75th anniversary of the USO club.
“We had a lot of fun activities,” Norman said. “We really wanted to go back to 1940s. Guests were excited about stepping into history. We had live entertainment, 1940s themed food and WWII veterans in attendance.”
The museum was damaged in a tornado in 2013 and was closed for a year. Later after it reopened in 2014, and a new oral history kiosk exhibit in the lobby honoring World War II veterans opened later that year. This oral history exhibit is her Norman ‘s favorite, and the favorite of many of the visitors. The oral history exhibit also includes the stories of three women who volunteered there during the war.
“Some of these young ladies didn’t realize how instrumental they were in lifting the morale of the troops that came,” Norman said. “It wasn’t until years later that they realized they had played a big part in helping these young soldiers adapt. A lot of men sent to train were teenagers. It was their first time away from home. The USO Club was important to encourage them and let them know there were people supporting them.”
Norman said the USO club was not only for serviceman, but also for people from the community. After the war, it became a community center. Then, when the C.E. Roy Community Center opened up, school classes were held at the former USO Club for a while.
The USO Club was initially built by volunteers who donated about 40,000 hours of work. And volunteers saved the building when it was on a list of buildings to be demolished.
“A group of veterans who knew the historical significance of the building went to our mayor and were able to get building reopened,” Norman said. “Eventually, they established a partnership now known as the African American Military History Museum Committee, which has been the driving force behind making a museum that chronical and honors African Americans in the military.”
The museum will hold a roundtable discussion on integrating the U.S. military Thursday, May 18 at 1 p.m. that will be moderated by the University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of History, Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. Event moderators Dr. Douglas Bristol and Dr. Heather Stur of the Department of History at Southern Miss edited the featured book, which is the first to compare the integration of African Americans, Japanese Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians in the U.S. military.
Bristol said the book reveals that, although the military is a conservative institution, it often has been on the forefront of civil rights.
“In the 1940s, the 1970s and the early 2000s, military integration and promotion policies were, in many ways, more progressive than similar efforts in the civilian world,” Bristol said. “At the same time, the book examines the discrimination within the military that led to civil rights reforms, highlighting the role that women and minorities played in fighting discrimination.”
Bristol will discuss how the targeting of black soldiers for harsh punishments and violence from World War II through Vietnam offers a historical perspective for the mass incarceration of black men and for the Black Lives Matter movement. Stur will discuss how deep-seated cultural attitudes about men and women condone the objectification of women’s bodies and aggressive sexual behavior within the military and on college campuses. Both will raise questions about the interplay between the military and civilian society.
For more information about the Department of History and the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society, visit www.usm.edu/history.
Admission to the museum is free. It is open Wednesdays through Fridays from 10 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon by appointment only, and from noon to 4 p.m.
For more information, call 601-450-1942 or visit HattiesburgUSO.com.