WWI plaque is a wrong righted

Published 1:10 am Friday, November 11, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Tom Toles, descendant of WWI veterans Frank and Louis Toles, reviews the new plaques after the Natchez WWI Memorial plaque unveiling and dedication ceremony Thursday morning at the federal courthouse in Natchez. Seven-hundred new names were added to the existing list of veterans, resulting in a new list with 1,219 names.

Natchez — The names of local World War I veterans — black and white — will remain immortalized in four new bronze plaques on the Natchez federal courthouse.

The new plaques were unveiled at a ceremony Thursday morning at the courthouse. The plaques include the names of 592 black and 107 white soldiers that were originally omitted from the memorial. The original memorial was placed on the building, then Memorial Hall, in 1924 during the height of the Jim Crow era.

City, county and federal officials, as well as representatives from local organizations and descendants of the WWI veterans, spoke messages of freedom, sacrifice and unity at the ceremony.

U.S. General Services Administration’s Martha M. Johnson speaks during the ceremony.

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General Services Administration Administrator Martha Johnson said the new plaques are a message from Natchez and the nation to veterans and their families of every generation.

“No matter when you served or for how long and no matter your race, gender or creed, your country will never leave your side,” she said.

“Where once there was a wrong, there is a right.”

Darryl Grennell, Adams County Board of Supervisors president, said freedom is not free and the people of the United States have promises to keep to veterans.

“Let us never forget them, no matter their race, socio-economic status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, we should never forget them,” he said

Shane Peterson, whose master’s thesis research was the catalyst for the memorial, sat in the audience and watched as his eight-year wait for the memorial ceremony finally ended.

Peterson came to Natchez in 2003 to study history as a part of the Natchez Courthouse Project as a graduate student from California State University, Northridge. His research for his thesis led to the discovery of the omission of more than 500 soldiers’ names from the memorial.

“I was beginning to think it wouldn’t happen,” Peterson said after the ceremony. “I’m glad I finally got to see it.”

Emma Jean Wensel Venn’s name was added to one of the new plaques. Venn went to France as a volunteer with the American Red Cross during World War I where she died of the flu.

Participants honor the National Anthem.

Venn’s niece, Sallie Ballard, cut one of the red, white and blue ribbons to unveil the new memorial.

“I think this is a marvelous thing that the whole community has done, and that’s what we need to do is be one community,” Ballard said.

Mayor Jake Middleton said after the ceremony the memorial will show that Natchez is working toward being a unified community.

“What we did today was a show that anybody that puts on a uniform for the United States of America should be recognized no matter skin color, religion, gender or anything else,” he said.

Natchez native, veteran and GSA staff member Patty Queen-Harper asked people to thank a veteran for his or her service on Veteran’s Day.

“This simple statement recognizes the sacrifice that people in the armed forces make, and that means a lot.”