The year Richard Overton was born, President Theodore Roosevelt dismissed three companies of Black soldiers for rioting against segregation in Texas, seven African American students at Cornell University founded Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and, according to an AFRO report, 73 lynchings were recorded.
Thirty-five years later, in 1942, Overton volunteered for the military. Now 107, he made news and history Nov. 11 when he was welcomed to the White House by President Obama for a celebratory breakfast with other veterans before he accompanied the chief executive to Arlington National Cemetery to pay homage to the nation’s men and women in uniform in the annual Veterans Day wreath laying ceremony.
“As we pay tribute to our veterans, we are mindful that no ceremony or parade can fully repay that debt,” Obama said in a proclamation. “We remember that our obligations endure long after the battle ends, and we make it our mission to give them the respect and care they have earned.”
All around the nation, Americans gathered at monuments and memorials, with marches and parades, to honor the nation’s service members. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, veterans were first officially recognized in 1921 when an unknown soldier from World War I was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. England and France also buried unknown soldiers in places of honor. The ceremonies were held on Nov. 11 at 11 a.m.—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—marking the official end of World War I three years earlier. Nov. 11 was known as Armistice Day and became a holiday in 1938. The name was changed to Veterans Day by an act of Congress in 1954, the website noted.
Washington’s memorials were the main event, from the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial to the National World War II Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lists the names of 58,000 Americans who died in the war.
“I always come down here to celebrate our veterans on Veterans Day,” said Dahlia Morgan, 37, of Philadelphia, who visited the military memorials with her husband, Scott, and three children. “My father was in the military, so I know the sacrifice people in service to our country make. It makes me feel proud to be an American to see so many people honoring those who sacrificed for our freedom.”
At the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Northwest, dozens of people gathered for a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial and a program at the museum featuring Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). In Prince George’s County, police packed care packages to be sent to the seven officers from the department who are currently deployed to Afghanistan.
In Baltimore, veterans were celebrated at a march that started at the Washington Monument and concluded at War Memorial Plaza.
The nation’s leaders paid tribute to those in uniform, as well.
“Our men and women in uniform make countless sacrifices, travel far from their families, and risk their lives in pursuit of one of the most honorable missions of all – service to this great nation,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). “On Veterans Day, Americans honor the courage and valor of current and former service members. But to truly honor these heroes, we must do our best to serve them when they return home. No one is more deserving of our help.”
Cummings’ statement praised the V.A.’s recent announcement “that they have made progress in reducing backlogged disability compensation claims by 34 percent since March.” He said he will continue to support measures to improve the economic fortunes of veterans through legislation like his bill, H.R. 1842, the Military Family Home Protection Act.
Bill Broadwater of Clinton, in Prince George’s County, said that as a veteran, it makes him feel appreciated that the nation stops to remember heroes like him.
“I am glad they take the time out to recognize us,” said Broadwater, 87, a member of the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen. “I am grateful that the nation recalls that the veterans went to these wars, sacrificed and some of them died because we don’t do much else for many of them.”
In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the host of the parade, thanked veterans, including those who served or are serving in the Middle East, for their commitment to their country.
Among the veterans she celebrated was Boyd Early, 59, who spent six years in the Army National Guard, much of it working as a medic.
“This is the day that men celebrate putting their [lives] on the line,” said Early, who received an honorable discharge in 1980 at the age of 31. After getting out, he worked at Bethlehem Steel as a “scaleman,” someone who weighed steel.
Morgan Hall, 44, now a U.S. Army chemist, spent 23 years serving his country in the Army National Guard.
“My greatest gift was the opportunity to lead troops in a battle and safely bring them back home,” Hall said of his yearlong stint in Afghanistan. An infantryman, he also has been deployed to Lithuania and Latvia. He spent Veterans Day reconnecting with friends he met serving his country.
Back in Washington, Overton was big national news. According to news reports, he served with an all-Black unit in the Pacific theater during World War II.
“War’s nothing to be into," Overton told USA Today. “You don't want to go into the war if you don't have to. But I had to go. I enjoyed it after I'd went and come back, but I didn't enjoy it when I was over there. I had to do things I didn't want to do."
He told the newspaper that he flavors his morning coffee with a tablespoon of whiskey each morning, enjoys a dozen cigars each day and was accompanied to D.C. by Earlene Love, 89, his “lady friend.”