He said he was grateful that there is now a place where he and other black military veterans and their families can go to celebrate their contributions and honor those who never returned home.
On September 24, Bassham attended the unveiling of the Buffalo African American Veterans Monument at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. The $1.8 million project was built through a combination of public funds, charitable contributions and corporate donations.
For Bassham, it was a moment he wondered if he would ever see.
“I did everything [the Air Force] asked me to do it, but I was not treated the same,” he said. “It’s high time people knew the truth about what black people went through in the US military.”
Bassham, 88, said he remembered segregated barracks, racist comments and losing promotions to white aircrew when he was in the Air Force.
“This monument is a pebble compared to the mountain of anger I’ve felt over the years,” he said. “But it will be a healing site.”
The Buffalo monument is considered the first of its kind in the country, honoring the contributions of black military personnel in 12 American wars, from the Revolutionary War to the war in Afghanistan.
He re-enacted Civil War battles as a black soldier fighting for freedom. Then he learned of the existence of his great-great-grandfather.
There are other memorials and museums that honor black soldiers, though Buffalo’s monument is the only one dedicated to living and deceased veterans of all branches of the U.S. military, said Robin E. Hodges, 60, United States Navy veteran and vice chair of the monument’s board of trustees.
Visitors to the new monument walk along pathways paved with bricks etched with the names of current and former military personnel as they view 12 black cylinders resembling giant candles.
The 10-foot pillars are positioned according to the longitude and latitude coordinates of where each war took place, and the spaces in between represent times of peace, Hodges said.
The lights atop the pillars replicate the candles that burned in the windows of families during the Civil War to guide soldiers home, she said.
Hodges said the monument also features interactive exhibits that tell the stories of black veterans and provide context on the racial disparity and discrimination they faced over the centuries.
From the segregation of troops during the Civil War to the denial of benefits after World War II and the discrimination that followed the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, no part of the Army’s treatment of black military personnel should be ignored, a said Warren Galloway, a Vietnam War veteran and chairman of the monuments committee.
A boy with cancer hoped to see monsters. Hundreds of foreigners showed up in costume.
“For the most part, these stories aren’t in the history books, so a lot of people don’t know the history of African-American service,” he said. “We hope people will retain the same kind of emotion and intense closeness they feel after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.”
For $250, anyone can buy a brick for a current or former black American serviceman, he said, noting that about 600 bricks have been sold and installed so far, with another 6,000 available.
The monument also provides Buffalo residents with a place to gather and honor black service members following a racially motivated shooting that killed 10 people at a grocery store in May, Galloway added.
“From what I hear, the project has brought resilience to the African-American community,” he said. “It’s something we can be proud of.”
The idea for the monument began six years ago after a small group of Buffalo-area residents told New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes that they hoped find land to build a park in honor of black service members.
“She got the land donated by the city, created a committee and put me on it,” said Madeline O. Scott, 87, a black amateur historian whose ancestors served in the Civil War.
Scott said she regularly scans obituaries for the names of deceased Black military veterans from Western New York, and is thrilled to finally have a way to honor them for their service and thank those who are still in active service.
Peoples-Stokes said the project was also personal for her, since his father and grandfather were enlisted. The history of blacks in the US military has not been fully told, she said.
“I thought it was right to honor the contributions of our loved ones and descendants,” she said. “[They] fought for the rights and freedoms of our nation, when in many cases they did not have their own.
She was an only child. She now has 101 great-grandchildren.
Peoples-Stokes and other council members chose Jonathan Casey, a local concrete artist, to design the monument. When Casey, 42, died in an accident in April 2020, a craftsman he had hired to help with the project offered to complete it.
“I think he would be happy to know that everything is going exactly as he planned,” said Rocky Gray, a fabricator who runs Buffalo Stoneworks.
“Jonathan was proud of his work on the monument, and it was a moving moment to see it unveiled,” said Casey’s father, Tom Casey, of West Seneca, NY.
Henry Curtis, a retired Army Reserve veteran from Buffalo, said he was impressed with Casey’s vision.
“We now have a way for black families to come together and say, ‘Hey, there’s my dad’s name,’ or ‘There’s my grandfather’s name,'” Curtis, 87, said. .
For Ronal Bassham, now a member of the monument’s board, seeing his own name and the names of four family members at the monument was a small step in recognizing the contributions of black people in times of war and peace.
“It can’t change what happened,” Bassham said. “But I’m glad the truth that should have been told 100 years ago is now coming to light.”
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