In 2000, Lisa Daniels was astonished to learn that her grandmother had been a civilian riveter on the USS Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. The revelation prompted Daniels, formerly a staffer at a KFBK morning show, to take stock of what she knew about African-American involvement in U.S. military history—which, she concluded, wasn’t enough. She also figured she wasn’t alone. To remedy the situation, Daniels embarked on a series of interviews with veterans, focusing particularly on minorities and women, that has evolved into the Unsung Heroes Living History Project. Daniels’ efforts now include video recordings and a growing collection of mementos, and they have taken her to several states and the District of Columbia so far. With more and more of today’s active-duty service people—and their civilian relatives—embattled by a life of military conflict, Unsung Heroes hopes to examine what might be learned from the experiences of preceding generations. Contact Daniels by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How has Unsung Heroes grown?
Initially, I was focusing on World War veterans, but I started to think that I couldn’t leave anybody out. I opened it up for all African-American veterans and other minorities, also. The stories are just wonderful. Also, I try to recruit kids to be doing the interviews. I had the Boys and Girls Clubs in South Sac. Any kids who want to learn, I can teach them. They can talk to relatives or whoever’s interested in being interviewed. It helps kids communicate and helps them learn history. They’ve got history sitting right in front of them. What’s also important is that it’s not just a local project. It’s a nationwide project, and I’m the only one doing this in the country.
Why do you think that is?
Sometimes, African-Americans, we don’t like to talk about things. I don’t know why that is, but you’re losing history as you do that. These things need to be documented. And I’m hell-bent on doing that!
How many folks have you spoken with?
I probably have a hundred people so far. I have some from Sacramento, probably about 10, including two local veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Also, there’s Boston Floyd, who owns the nightclub Cheers and was one of the first African-American navigators. I’m still working on getting more.
What are the advantages of oral history over other forms of research or journalism?
I love it because it’s living history. You are speaking to the source. Often, they have the documents to back it up. They have pictures. I still get chills from some of these stories. You can’t imagine the living hell these people went through. They’re serving our country, going abroad and risking their lives, and they come back to be treated like second-class citizens. I saw a feature in Time magazine about the anniversary of World War II, with portraits of many veterans, but there wasn’t a single black face in there. We’re celebrating a milestone in history, and you can’t include anybody? That is heinous. Future generations need to know what’s going on. Kids need to know.
What’s the age range of people you’ve interviewed?
It’s a pretty wide range, and it’s getting wider. The oldest is 87, and so far the youngest is probably about 38.
Have you noticed any generational differences in their stories?
A lot of them, especially since 9/11, especially the older ones, feel like they’re treated with more respect now. Some attitudes have changed. One guy, in the interview, he said, “Don’t do the color angle. In Vietnam, we were all brothers. It didn’t matter.”
Is that still true?
I talked to Ezell Ware, one of the highest-ranking officers in the Air National Guard. He was local but now lives in Austin, Texas. He talked about facing adversity trying to get up the ranks, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, having to deal with racism. I can agree with Gen. Ware that it’s still mind-boggling. In terms of the institutions, the top levels looking down, racism is still there. But between the people on the ground, it’s much different now.
What are the project’s challenges?
Trying to recruit more people for the interviews. People are willing; they want to talk. It’s just a matter of getting to them and getting time for everybody. Not everybody has e-mail. I have to travel a lot to do this. It’s in the process of becoming a nonprofit, but I’ve been doing this with my own money. I’d like to find a place to house it, so it would be accessible to everybody. Sacramento’s the capital of California, so if it could be here, that would be great. But it doesn’t have to be; it’s for everybody.
Do you think this might encourage young people to consider military service or discourage them from it?
I don’t think it would try to do either. It’s more educational. It’s more about saying, “Hey, we were there. We served. We weren’t just swabbing the decks. We were colonels. We were generals. We were engineers. We played an important role in world history.”