Hattiesburg’s African American Military History Museum celebrated its 10th anniverary of serving the Pine Belt community last month and general manager Latoya Norman said she’s looking forward to what the future holds for the museum.
The museum originally opened its doors in May 2009 with a mission to shine a light on the involvement of African American men and women who have served in U.S. Armed Forces.
Norman has worked there the entire time.
“During the course of the past 10 years, we have had a lot of community support,” said Norman. “I’ve been fortunate enough to (personally) meet a lot of World War II veterans who come here and talk about their memory of this USO and what the community meant to them.”
Norman said having a front row seat to hear the stories of the sacrifices those soldiers have gone through is very rewarding.
“When I first started working here, I don’t think I fully understood the sacrifice of a veteran,” she said. “But being able to hear their stories, I now have a greater appreciation of their work and what they’ve done for us.”
Norman said it struck her to see how African American veterans still went out fighting for a country they did not have rights in.
“Just being able to ask [African American WWII Veterans] those questions of why would you and seem them basically saying, ‘so you can be in the position that you are in now,’” Norman said. “They knew a change would come, and even if they couldn’t see it, they still want to show that, ‘hey, this is our America too.’”
Norman said she wants people to know that the museum is American history. She said the museum is proud of all accomplishments of veterans, but the building was originally opened for black soldiers during WWII, and they wanted to focus specifically on the achievements of African American veterans.
The AAMHM sits in the heart of the museum district on 6th Street. Though the museum is only 10-years old, the building that houses it has a rich history with the African American community in Hattiesburg. The building opened as the segregated United Service Organizations (USO) club in the ‘40s to provide recreational services and moral to U.S. Military men and their families.
“It transitioned from a USO club after WWII to a community center, and it was even a school at some point,” Norman explained.
Charles J. Brown, a retired Sergeant First Class and membership chairman for the African American Military History Museum Committee, said he remembers the USO club’s time as a community center for the summer programs it held.
“(The building) is where I went to receive free toys during Christmas,” said Brown, who is an 11-year veteran of the Vietnam War.
Brown said they were granted the building for use as a museum, and they began collecting obituaries and flags of deceased African American veterans where they could. Once the Hattiesburg Convention Commission sponsored the museum, it was able to grow into what it is today.
“This is where, through [the Hattiesburg Convention Commission’s] funding, develop it into the state of art it is today,” Brown said.
Brown said Black History is very important but has been left out of education and publications.
“(Black History) wasn’t appreciated, and it certainly wasn’t preserved,” Brown said. “To see what we were able to do to tell the story of blacks in combat situations of the United States.”
Norman said she enjoys meeting the people that served and learning their stories as well as those who ran the USO club during its time as a community center and sharing their memories of the building.
“Those are memories that I will always hold close to my heart, and I feel very privileged to have been here so long to have heard those stories first hand,” Norman said.
Norman said she is excited to see the area be revitalized. The museum district will soon have a military vehicle display. They are also turning Eureka School into a museum and moving Oseola McCarty’s home into the district to turn it into a museum.
Norman said officials plan to introduce more programming as time goes on. She also said she wants to get more community involvement in the creation of programming for the museum.
“What we want to do is really truly get a feel for what the community would like to see more of,” Norman said. “We’ve had a lot of growth as far as programming, and so we have been able to sit and reflect on the last ten years and also think about going forward where we will be and how it might look.”
The next programs to come for the AAMHM will be the Flag Day program and the Needham Hones Boot Camp for teenage boys.