Chicago teenagers listened in awe Monday as a black veteran explained how he was treated while serving in theU.S. Air Force sixty years ago — and how it still haunts him.
Because it was a day of service honoringMartin Luther King Jr., the conversation between the high school students in the After School Matters program and a senior from the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center naturally shifted toward race relations.
Harold Bellamy, 78, who from 1951 to 1955 was stationed stateside onU.S. militarybases — mostly in the South — recalled how he wasn't allowed on certain buses in South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, and how he was turned away from a bowling alley because of the color of his skin.
It wasn't until years later Bellamy said he was able to deal with the emotions he felt at that time.
"It took me 49 years to re-live my experiences," he said, adding that just last year he was upset by having to leave a bowling alley due to overcrowding.
The discussion at the Chicago Cultural Center is part of the statewide Generations Serving Generations program, in which students will spend the next several months recording stories of World War II veterans.
Joyce Gallagher, director of the Chicago Area Agency on Aging, said the program is intended to develop a mutual understanding between generations, and fits in with King's message of community service.
The project will also give the voices of an aging generation of veterans a permanent historical record, said John Holton, director of the Illinois Department on Aging.
"Unfortunately, we lose veterans every day, and we lose their stories," he said.
Elizabeth Ortiz, a 16-year-old junior at Perspectives Charter School, said she was excited to begin the project and was moved by Bellamy's account of military service.
"I felt emotional with him," she said. "I have an uncle who is a veteran. I wondered why he never talked about what he went through."
Jada Rouselle, a 16-year-old sophomore at Young Women's Leadership Charter School, said Monday was the first time she's talked face-to-face with a veteran. It was rewarding "to hear and feel his emotion," she said.
Forming a relationship between teenagers and the senior veterans is "extremely important" because there often aren't opportunities for the groups to interact, said Tobias Emms, director of programs at After School Matters.
"They're going to learn a lot from each other," he said.
The upcoming project will reward veterans as much as the teens, said Jason Ferguson, 46, a recreational therapist at Jesse Brown. A veteran himself, Ferguson said talking about war experiences is healing.
In another Chicago event honoring King on Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn joined several politicians at a breakfast hosted by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, which raised scholarship money for students across the country.
The Democratic governor said it was a fitting cause to honor the late civil rights leader, who was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
"We know that Dr. King was an educated man, he believed in education, he believed in children and going to school," Quinn said. "And so giving money here today for scholarships, I think, is a very important cause."
Quinn told of his visit to Resurrection City when he was a freshman at Georgetown University in 1968, the name given to the encampment set up by King's followers on the National Mall to bring attention to the plight of the nation's poor.
Tribune reporters Monique Garcia and Alexandra Chachkevitch contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun