They weren’t arrayed with Arlington’s military precision. But the markers I found planted in the red Georgia soil are the same gravestones you see standing at attention at the national military cemetery. They are just under hip high, wide as a coffin, thick as a family Bible, cut along the top edge to curve like the horizon.
I spotted the markers as I walked on a carpet of pine needles in the African-American part of Commerce, the town of about 6,000 near Atlanta where my father was born. Not all the graves I passed were of veterans, but those were the ones that especially intrigued me. Many bore my family name _ Bryson. Time had roughened and stained the markers and worn away the oldest inscriptions. From the dates I could make out, it was clear the fallen soldiers were the sons and grandsons of slaves and had themselves lived and died under Jim Crow. Here was proof set in stone that men fought and died for an America that spurned them. Talk about asking not what your country can do for you.
“They were so proud of that service,” my father Andrew Bryson told me when I asked him later about the cemetery. “Those were the opportunities for them to get out of town and see the world. (But) they didn’t talk a lot about what their (military) experiences were.”
As a child, my father had heard of slaves who were sent to accompany what he called "their so-called masters” to Civil War battlefields. Some crossed over to Union forces.
“This was an opportunity. If they lived through this they would be free and be accepted as men because they could fight,” he said. “Even in today’s idea of freedom, people believe they need to go to fight to be considered a man. I guess humans have done this since antiquity. It’s always something about fighting.”
His grandfather, a Union soldier, was known as General Bryson. All my father knows of General’s real name is that his initials were CG.
General settled in Commerce after the Civil War to run a general store. He made no secret of his Republican sympathies at a time when the party of Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, was anathema to white Southerners.
“He was independent,” my father said. “He didn’t work for anybody but himself.
“My grandmother said that (white) people thought he was too uppity.”
In 1936 Klansmen dragged General from his store and tarred and feathered him. His wife Lucy armed herself with a pistol and demanded the mob release him, but he died soon after of his injuries. The marker for CG Bryson was among those I visited in the Commerce cemetery. It bore only his name and the word “father.”
General’s son Mim, my grandfather, served America too.
“My father was in an infantry group that actually fought Germans in the First World War. The stories that he told about mustard gas were horrible. That was a horrible war,” my father said. But “I was always proud of the fact that my father was a World War I soldier.”
Mim lingered in France after the war, perfecting his French. My father remembers Mim and my schoolteacher grandmother Julia, who had learned the language at school, speaking French when they wanted to have a private conversation within hearing of their two sons.
As he wandered in postwar Europe, Mim might also have been savoring freedom from Jim Crow. When he did return home, still wearing his uniform, a white man in Commerce greeted him with: “Where you been, boy?”
I’m sorry I never met Mim. He was much older than my grandmother and died in 1946 when my father was 8.
My father was something of a prodigy, going to work as a pharmacy delivery boy soon after his father died and finishing high school by the age of 14. He was 18 when he graduated from West Virginia State, a historically black institution where he majored in zoology and minored in math and French. As a young black man in the South he struggled to find challenging work. He went north.
“It was interesting coming from Georgia to New York City,” he said. “You think once you cross that Mason-Dixon Line everybody would welcome you with open arms, giving you a job if you showed you were qualified. It didn’t work out like that.”
He found what jobs he could, including handling baggage at Penn Station.
“I was 18 years old, going on 19. I was frustrated enough that I went down to the recruitment center.”
At the time, American military advisers had already been in Vietnam for years and U.S. involvement there was escalating.
For my book “Home of the Brave” I interviewed vets who serve and are served by a grassroots support group in the western Colorado town of Montrose. As I listened, several told me that they rarely spoke to others of their military experience. One told me the Montrose project “brought me out of the woodwork. It brought quite a few vets out of the woodwork, out of the woods.” That got me thinking about the vet closest to me, my father. I had seen a portrait of him handsome and smiling in his Army uniform countless times in my mother’s photo album. But he had never spoken to me about his service. After finishing “Home of the Brave” I ended one of the weekly telephone chats I have with my father and asked whether we could spend the next one talking about his time in the Army.
He told me that after basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey he went to Commerce to see his mother before taking a bus to Texas. His initial assignment was a medical unit at Fort Sam Houston.
In Texas, my father learned that his performance on aptitude tests had qualified him for a special assignment. He was transferred to the then brand-new Dewitt Army Hospital at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
He remembers his welcome in Virginia vividly. A USO dance had been arranged. Black soldiers were bused to the venue, a hangar, and dropped at one end. White soldiers were dropped at another.
“I was standing there thinking, ‘We’re supposed to be one country. They’re ready to ship us off where people will be shooting at us. Yet, here we are, separated. It was kind of disheartening.”
My father’s experience less than a decade after America’s armed forces were officially desegregated shows progress was neither smooth nor quick. Still, while civilian employees seemed to have seen only his color, the Army took note of his qualifications. The first six months in Virginia my father worked as an operating room technician, prepping patients for surgery and later transferring them to recovery and ensuring facilities were sterile. Then, when administrators realized they had a shortage of people familiar with chemistry, he was transferred to a lab.
“I got a chance to use a lot of the stuff I had learned in college. I got a chance to work with a Harvard-educated pathologist who took the time to teach me about cells and cancer. It was so fascinating and exciting. It was a great learning time in my life.”
My father did not end up in Vietnam. But when a devastating quake struck Chile in 1960, my father was part of an emergency response team America sent to set up a field hospital. He also went to Europe on assignment to a US military hospital in Germany.
“I’ve done a lot of different things in parts of the world I never would have seen otherwise,” he said.
His father and grandfather before him and my father aren’t alone in finding the military offered opportunity that black Americans have struggled to find in civilian life. Between 1990 and 2011, according to researchers from Pew, the nonpartisan public policy think tank, the percentage of racial minorities among officers and enlisted personnel increased from about a quarter to about a third. Whites are just over 70 percent of the military, less than their 77 percent of the general population. Blacks are 17 percent of all servicemen and women, while they are only 13.5 percent of all Americans.
My father’s active duty service ended in 1961. After a brief spell at a civilian hospital and with a civilian military contractor in Georgia, he returned to service, this time as a civilian. As a Department of Defense munitions expert my father helped oversee the safety and security of America’s chemical weapons stockpiles and later, as an industrial hygienist, he ensured the health of military and civilian workers at installations across southern California and in the Pacific.
Now retired from DOD, he looks back and says his military service "made you aware of other people doing something for their country all together. We realized we were all Americans.”
Another lesson my father drew from his Army years: “I learned a lot about what black Americans did to become part of this country by serving it.”
I reached out to my father for his story and got a family history of service. I’m proud to honor this American legacy.