In depth: SERVICE HAS NO RACE
Greencastle VFW Post 6319 celebrated its 70th anniversary March 7, and also honored the last surviving founding member. A local vet, who also served in World War II, was not at the celebration. Oscar “Reed” Burke is black, and was not welcomed by the post in 1946.
Burke, 93, a McConnellsburg native, wanted to join the new club when he moved to Greencastle after his discharge from the Army. He and Gilmore Dixon asked to sign up. An officer in the club told them, “I can get you an application, but you guys won’t have any privileges.”
The comment hurt, and stuck with him all these years.
Burke and Dixon joined Greencastle American Legion Post 373, and went to Newville for the VFW experience. Chambersburg, at the time, did not open its arms to the minority race either.
Burke shared his story, and the sentiment that also affected veterans Levester Taylor, William Weaver, Howard Hamilton, Dick Jones, Floyd Robinson and William Rankin.
Burke thought about challenging the attitude higher up the chain, but decided, “To hell with them. Why belong to something they don’t want you in?”
Later some of the black veterans joined the Greencastle club as social members, but they were not in the post itself. As the years passed, Burke said men in the VFW invited him to join, saying things had changed. He chose not to.
Mostly a good life
In 1943 Burke received the “Greetings” letter from the draft board. He followed the procedures laid out in the missive.
“If you passed the physical, you were inducted,” he said. “They weren’t missing too many guys.”
He served for three years, initially in Great Britain, and then as part of the D1 invasion of France. He stormed Omaha Beach on the first day after the D-Day landings on Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944. The troops loaded cargo from the ship onto ducks, the amphibious tanks invented by the British. The soldiers, laden with heavy backpacks, held onto a rope to walk to shore.
“Some of my buddies drowned,” Burke reflected. “I was one of the lucky ones.”
They saw bodies on the beach, and were under fire from the Germans occupying the country. Land mines were a risk.
Burke made it home to civilian life in December 1946. The frown from the VFW made its mark.
“We went over there and fought for our country. Then here, we were like guys who never served.”
Burke and his late wife Katherine lived in the house they built on South Carl Avenue. They raised daughters Rita, Wanda and Linda, who now live in the Philadelphia area. His career was at Letterkenny, and the couple also worked at First National Bank as custodians for decades.
Burke was friends with the men at the VFW, and worked with some. Max Izer, who received the 70-year honor, was “a good man.” Though ignored in Greencastle, the World War II vet enjoyed membership at Newville and also became a life member of Chambersburg VFW Post 1599. Pals from Letterkenny had invited him to join.
It was a place to hang out. “If you wanted a cold beer, you could get it,” he said with a smile.
In the 1940s and 1950s, he added, Greencastle was a bit segregated. He said no blacks were members of the Rescue Hose Company. Not every business welcomed them, he alleged, but Baumgardner’s Tavern did. In the 1960s things got better. Nevertheless, Burke lived his life as he wanted to.
“I’ve never been mistreated in this town. Some places that didn’t want me, I went there anyway.”
He has never attended the RHC Minstrel Show, though. “They down-trod black people with the blackface. I saw pictures in the Echo Pilot.”
Ultimately, though, Burke has been happy living in Greencastle.
“To this day, colored don’t mean anything to me,” he said. “People are people. My father and mother taught me that.”
Other VFW perspectives
Robert Brown is senior vice commander of Greencastle VFW Post 6319. He is the first black officer. He joined the club in June 2014. The following June he was elected to office and this summer will become Commander. He is retired from the military, first serving for three years in the Army. He then joined the Marines from 1985-2003.
Brown, 53, is not aware of racism in Greencastle VFW history. He did experience a bit of trouble trying to join another post in Franklin County, though.
“Those guys gave me a tough time,” he said.
He submitted the membership documents but was told he did not qualify. His service in Korea in the demilitarized zone didn’t count, he was told. Brown’s brother was a national member in Washington D.C., and got him a card. He transferred to Greencastle and felt welcomed.
According to vfw.org, the requirements for membership are: “If you have received a campaign medal for overseas service; have served 30 consecutive or 60 non-consecutive days in Korea; or have ever received hostile fire or imminent danger pay, then you're eligible to join our ranks.”
Post 6319 has other black members on the rolls. They transferred from Mercersburg when their club closed.
Brown sees the organization as open to all overseas veterans.
“We are a local place for veterans who served, and for the community, to come to get cheap drinks and food, and to talk to the vets and get their stories.”
The post itself did not return calls for comment.
Blackface in Greencastle
Ray Mowen, historian with the Rescue Hose Company, acknowledged that in the old days, the fire company did discriminate. Organizations such as the RHC, VFW and other clubs, required members to be white males. They changed their policies in the 1960s.
The Minstrel Show performed in the style of minstrel shows all over the United States in their heyday. Blackface was part of the program.
“Minstrels were very prominent forms of entertainment in the early 1900s,” Mowen said. “There was Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. Even black people were in the shows.”
He explained that on other stages, black performers would paint their faces white, or if light-skinned, use burnt cork to look darker.
Greencastle dropped its show from 1958 to 1962. When it resumed in 1963, that was the last year the company used blackface. In 1964 they switched to the hobo look. Mowen doesn’t know how the decision was made to become the Hobo Minstrels, just that it was agreed upon by the members.
He does not think any black people have participated in the show, but they have joined the fire company.
No photos of end men in blackface have ever run in the Echo Pilot. The first time a picture of the comedians appeared was in 1979, with Wally McDonald and Frank Mowen rehearsing with interlocutor Dick Walck. They were not in costume. The first photo of a hobo in make-up was an unidentified man in 1980. He wore a colorful costume, and had white paint around his mouth and a simulated beard on his chin and cheeks.
GREENCASTLE'S BLACK WWII VETERANS
Oscar “Reed” Burke