Museum examines black Vietnam experience

PITTSBURGH – A pair of combat boots. A wristband woven from boot laces with several bullets dangling. A photo of black servicemen standing outside a makeshift African temple.

The items are part of “Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era,” a new exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center that examines the black experience in Vietnam in the context of the era’s domestic social fabric.

Samuel W. Black, curator of the center’s African American Collections, conceived the exhibit, in part because his older brother, Jimmy McNeil, served two years in Vietnam.

Black was 4 years old when his brother was sent to Vietnam. He died in 1971, unrelated to the conflict, and Black said he really never knew what his brother’s experience was.

Black found much had been written about the role of blacks in other wars, particularly the Civil War and World War II, but he found little about blacks in Vietnam.

As he began researching, he found the black experience in Vietnam was also linked to social changes on U.S. soil. The civil rights movement was in full swing. The Black Power movement was growing.

“Two things kind of stood out for me,” he said. “One was the level of activism, political and social activism, on the part of African Americans in Vietnam. That was surprising to me. And the other was the presence of African American women in Vietnam” performing administrative, nursing and other duties.

Black Power organizations were active in Vietnam, he said. They weren’t sanctioned, but they were not underground, either.

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