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Local tribute to WWI heroes excludes many

NATCHEZ — McKinley Barnes never met his uncle Richard Lively, but he heard plenty about him growing up.

Lively was a World War I veteran, and later met a tragic death as a timber cutter when a tree fell on him. Barnes was an infant at the time of his uncle’s death, but his family never let him forget about Lively’s service to his country.

“They were tough,” Barnes said of Lively and other soldiers. “Yes indeed buddy, they were tough.”

On Friday, Barnes, a World War II veteran, stood outside the federal courthouse on Pearl Street, where four plaques bear the names of men who served in World War I. The name of Richard Lively is not there.

Barnes believes Lively’s exclusion is due to the color of his skin.

“He’s not there. I’ve looked at it too many times,” Barnes said. “I’ve been reading, and looking and looking, and I’ve found not a name I know.”

The names of black soldiers who served during World War I do not appear on the plaques, according to research conducted by Shane Peterson, a student at California State University Northridge. In an online essay, Peterson said a federal roster states 581 black men entered the U.S. Army from Adams County between 1917 and 1918.

Peterson’s essay also states a survey of the Natchez National Cemetery suggests that approximately 200 black Army Troopers returned to Adams County after the war, yet none appear on the courthouse plaques.

Peterson enlisted the help of Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator, Ser Seshs Ab Heter-C.M. Boxley, who is petitioning for the plaques to be revised to include the names of black soldiers.

“The plaques were installed during the days of Jim Crow, and I’m calling for reconciliation of this Jim Crow era situation,” Boxley said. “These soldiers served the country with honor and with dignity regardless of the fact discrimination was going on.

“It’s a blemish on the federal courthouse to have Jim Crow-ism presented to the public, and that’s not to take away from the honor of those on these panels.”

Thelma Thompson White, former president of the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery Association, agrees it’s time to commemorate black soldiers who served in World War I, including her father George Thompson.

George Thompson was stationed in France as the war drew to an end, and he later worked on the railroad cleaning tank cars — a dangerous job, his daughter says. Thompson eventually returned to Adams County, and built a sturdy house for his family. White lives in that house today, where she keeps a certificate signed by President Richard Nixon honoring her father for his service.

As White browsed through soldiers’ names starting with the letter “T” outside the courthouse, she said, “If all these men are veterans, surely there should be a list of black men who served.”

Boxley said revising the plaques is the responsibility of the General Services Administration, who assisted in restoring the courthouse in 2007.

Boxley would prefer for black soldiers’ names to be incorporated with those already on the plaque. Boxley said the cost to restore the plaques should be the least of worries.

“Whatever the cost is, that’s not the issue,” Boxley said. “Equal commemoration has to be the order of the day.”