Rising above racism: One veteran’s story

At World War II veteran Mrs. Alberta Stockton Smith’s funeral service in Piqua, Ohio, Pastor Brian Hamilton said, “Let’s draw our minds in.” And those in attendance did, and I caught a glimpse of this 95-year-old woman as friends and family said their farewells.

According to Minister Fred W. Hudgins Sr., Smith was a “strict and determined woman” who on occasion told him, “Boy, you need a good whooping.” Another person who spoke at the service reinforced the minister’s opinion, “When she told you to do something, she meant it. She didn’t have to tell you twice.”

A surgical technician and a WAC (Women’s Army Corps), a member of the 21st Hospital Corps of the United States Army, Mrs. Smith entered military service on April 8, 1944, and was discharged on Dec. 2, 1945, as her unit was demobilized at the war’s end. In addition to the Good Conduct Medal for her service, she was awarded the Victory Medal and the American Theater Ribbon. Her ashes were interred at Covington Memorial Park on Jan. 18 with full military honors, conducted by the Veterans Elite Tribute Squad under the command of Chuck Morris.

We can only imagine Mrs. Smith’s interest in joining the WACs where there was rampant racism with segregated training, transportation, housing, recreation and meals. And without the work of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet member Mary McLeod Bethune and FDR’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, there would have been no African American women in the WAAC s which became the WACs. And the quota was set at 10 percent.

When African American Lt. Col. Charity Adams and her executive officer, Capt. Abbie Noel Campbell, went to Europe as late as January of 1945, Adams reports, “Among U.S. military personnel who could not believe Negro WAC officers were real, salutes were slow in coming and, frequently, returned with great reluctance.”

It was not until July 26, 1948 that President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order 9981 which called for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all personnel in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” The caveat was the next part of the executive order: “This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.”

Back to Mrs. Smith and on to her life post-military service. Her oldest daughter, Victoria Garrett, indicates her mother had a “Me and Sis’ Hat Thing” going on in a sewing room in the home. The initial hats were called “Go to Hell Hats.” At Bingo one Sunday night, a “guy was admiring mama’s and he wanted one. It became his fishing hat, and he just loved it.”

Victoria reports, “I was ready to go to bed one night when mother said, ‘I got a brainstorm. Let’s make a sailor hat.’” Her mother was not to be trifled with and although “the hat shop was shut down, we opened it back up, made the hat and finally went to bed. At breakfast the next day, we were still laughing about the evening brainstorm.”

When her mother was in the nursing home before her death, Victoria needed something to occupy her time because she was “ going stir crazy: I was just lost. I was used to getting up and going to see about mama every day. I had crocheted a long time ago but nothing fancy. I bought a book, and I began to make afghan blankets for my family members, and I’d take them to the nursing home to show mama.

“When I asked her if she wanted one, she said yes and picked out the most difficult pattern in the book. I couldn’t figure out the pattern, so I just did it my way and wrote my instructions in the book. It was a big ole heavy blanket, and mama loved it, used it for a few weeks and told me to take it home before it was stolen.”

Mrs. Smith’s grandson Chris Davis, 42, recalls lots of visits to his grandmother’s house. When he entered the house and saw the cast-iron Dutch oven, he knew delightful eating was in store for him and his brother, Jason: Noodles, cheese, tomatoes and secret ingredients that no woman in the family has yet been able to replicate.

Davis says that at noontime, the stock market news came on and “Grandmother was at the kitchen table selecting and recording numbers to play the Ohio Lottery. With numbers in hand, it was off to a local gas station or grocery store to buy her tickets. And then it was back to the house for the soap operas.”

“’The Young and the Restless,’ ‘As the World Turns’ and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ were her favorites and grandmother would get agitated, get upset and talk to the characters on the show, ‘By Joe,’ and ‘No, that just ain’t right.’”

Like most military veterans, Smith came home from her service to live out her life in the way that worked for her. She married Army veteran Louis Smith and gave birth to nine children. In the quiet Miami Valley of Ohio, she worked outside of the home 25 years to help support her family and left rich memories for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to savor.

Thank you for your courageous service to our country, Mrs. Alberta Stockton Smith, at a time when such service was complicated by blatant racism.

Contact Dr. Vivian Blevins at vbblevins@woh.rr.com.