Susan Perham '12
Susan Perham '12
After taking three courses with history professor Esther Kanipe, Susan Perham '12 felt comfortable in proposing a research project under Kanipe's direction and pursuing necessary funding via an Emerson Grant. She is now working with Kanipe on a documentary that delves into the lives of Oneida County's African-American World War II veterans.

Her main question examines the veterans' motives for enlisting in the army. Many of them say it was patriotism that drove them to join the ranks. But this claim remains dubious to many historians because African American soldiers had no feasible grounds for loving their country. If anything, they should have hated it.

African Americans had to fight the government just to serve. Once they were in, they had to bear verbal abuse and physical violence. Furthermore, they received mediocre training and had far fewer privileges than did white soldiers. Yet they still signed up for the war, enthusiastically and without a second thought. This inconsistency has puzzled Perham ever since, as a child, she talked to her grandfather about his service in World War II. She believes that our elders have far more stories to divulge than we know; all we have to do is ask.

Perham plans on consulting books, visiting black communities, and conducting interviews. Although there are still more than one million African American World War II veterans in the United States, she will narrow down her search to just those in Oneida County. From snippets of her interviews with veterans, Perham will create a documentary of the memories that best illustrate what it meant to be a minority on the battlefield. Her footage might also reveal how the war changed America's views on civil rights.

Among her interviewees were former Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in the military. One man related to her the love of his country, and though Perham had anticipated his response, it still surprised her.

"You read in history books that these people said they wanted to fight because it was their country, but when you actually hear somebody say that – who did it – it's amazing. We read it in a textbook, but these people lived it."

The man also recalled a moment in his life when segregation felt both appalling and absurd. He had been in the ticket line at a bus station and the worker distributing tickets told him to get in the other line. He obeyed, but when it was his to turn to buy a ticket, the same worker faced him once more. This time, instead of sending him away, he let him pass, simply because he had stood in a different line. She feels that people can learn from this anecdote and others.

"I think in this time we forget about where we've been, and how we've gotten here," she said. "Yes, we have a black president. He's actually half white, but you never hear anybody say he's our first biracial president – they still say he's our first black president. It all goes back to that 'if you're half black, you're all black' attitude. We still have issues, and if we're going to get somewhere, we need to address them."

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