When he joined the U.S. Army in 1950 – at 15 years old – Sgt. Maj. James Williams said he was not allowed to eat in the same mess hall or sleep in the same barracks as most of his fellow soldiers. His superiors did not even refer to him by his military title, even though his rank already was the lowest it could be.
“I was not called ‘Private Williams.’ I was called ‘N—– Williams,’ ” he said. “We did not have the same privileges the whites had.”
Williams, 84, said he is the last surviving member of the Buffalo Soldiers, which is what the Army called its group of black soldiers who trained and served separately from their white counterparts from 1866 until around the time that Williams joined. He eventually moved up within the ranks of the 101st Airborne Division, serving four years in the Korean War and four combat tours during the Vietnam War.
And 70 years after being treated like a second-class soldier, Williams was the guest of honor in a Memorial Day celebration hosted by his representative in the United States Congress. The Third Ward resident received a proclamation from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee during her Monday morning ceremony held at the World War II Memorial Plaza in the Heights, where about 50 community members gathered in observance of the holiday.
Williams provided one of the most rousing moments during an event that also included Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and State Rep. Anna Eastman, prompting the crowd to say “God Bless America” after he first said it himself.
“You’re blessed to be in a country where you have the right and freedom to be whatever you want to be,” Williams told the crowd. “That’s what we fought for.”
Most of the elected officials, soldiers, veterans and other dignitaries who participated in the event wore masks – as did many of the community members in attendance – as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. The threat of spreading the contagious disease, which is caused by the new coronavirus, led to the cancellation of some other Memorial Day events and altered the way many Americans celebrate it.
Jackson Lee, who was on the Houston City Council when it approved the construction of the Heights war memorial in the early 1990s, still sponsored a local Memorial Day event for the 13th year in a row.
“We cannot allow Memorial Day to be trampled on by a pandemic. We could not ignore the value and importance of this day,” Jackson Lee said. “So in this month of May as we acknowledge the debt we owe, let us be a grateful nation, let us stop and say thank you to veterans, let us place a flag and acknowledge those who have fallen.”
Along with recognizing the veterans in attendance – including 74-year-old Army veteran Charles Williams, an ambassador for the Blinded Veterans Association – Jackson Lee also included the Texas National Guard in her ceremony. The Texas National Guard has been assisting with the COVID-19 response in the state by serving at testing sites, food banks and nursing homes.
There also were some emotional musical performances. James Little played “God Bless America” and “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, while AnGelle Sylvester sang the national anthem and “The Impossible Dream.”
Heights resident Cathy Thompson, who walked to the event from her home, held a Word War II cap in honor of her father, Ronald Thompson, who served in Japan during the war.
“We just lost him in December, so this is very touching,” she said.
Judy Wolf said she moved to the Heights in March from Denver, Colorado. She was out for a walk and stopped to sit on a bench next to the war memorial, where the ceremony materialized around her.
“I was impressed,” Wolf said. “(Jackson Lee’s) speech was pretty incredible.”
Williams’ words, and his story of going from discriminated against to decorated, might have made an even bigger impact on those in attendance. He said he had been honored before at similar events, but Monday was the first time he received a proclamation from a congresswoman.
He said he is proud to be an American soldier and proud of the impact made by his service.
“It made me feel very pleased that I went through (that) for this country to be what it is,” he said, “so people like Sheila Jackson Lee could be where they are today.”