Museum for black WWII effort takes hold in Vt.
By Wilson Ring - The Associated Press
Posted : Saturday Sep 1, 2007 13:54:22 EDT

POWNAL, Vt. — Down a dirt driveway, in one of the whitest states in the nation, is a museum dedicated to the experiences of black service men and woman during World War II.

The Museum of Black World War II History is run by Bruce Bird, a white, retired factory worker who sold his home and used the proceeds to convert a two-room 19th-century schoolhouse to house it. The museum, which opened in June 2006, and has display cases filled with World War II weapons, models of tanks and aircraft and other memorabilia.

At best, it gets a handful of visitors a week.

Bird doesn’t know where the money will come from to pay his next fuel oil bill.

But he’s steadfast in his resolve to recognize the service and sacrifice of more than 1.1 million black service men and women who had to fight to fight for their country in WWII or fill support jobs in every theater of war while suffering the indignities of institutional racism.

“We don’t get enough people yet,” Bird said. “With any museum, you essentially need a rich sponsor. We haven’t found one yet. I contend this museum should be run by a rich, famous black veteran, none of which I am.”

But Bird’s build-it-and-they-will-come approach appears to be working, a little bit at a time.

A black woman from New Hampshire whose father was killed in WWII while driving a truck in France donates the museum’s Web site.

Bird’s efforts are also being recognized by others working to promote the contributions of black service members. Out of the blue, he was invited to a Washington ceremony honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black aviators.

“I think the museum is a great thing,” said Gregory Black, a retired Navy officer who runs the Web site and has a link to the Vermont museum from his site. “I think it’s something that we need. One of the things, overall, that African Americans are very disenchanted with these days, is we don’t really feel appreciated. We don’t feel recognized for the contributions that we’ve made. A lot of people have basically given up.”

Bird wants to change that. His displays tell the stories of:

* The 6888th Central Postal Directory Unit, made up entirely of black women who served in Europe.

* The 761st tank battalion, which spent 183 days in combat in Europe.

* The Pearl Harbor heroics of Navy Mess Attendant 2nd class Dorie Miller, of the battleship West Virginia. During the Dec. 7, 1941 attack, he pulled many wounded shipmates to safety and then, wielding a weapon he hadn’t been trained to use, shot down at least two Japanese planes.

* The Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944, when about half the artillery battalions surrounded by the Germans near the Belgian city of Bastogne were made up of black soldiers.

And of course, the museum has a display about the Tuskegee Airmen, the aviators who come to symbolize the challenges of black service members who sought to fly in combat and, once there, won the respect of fellow service men and the enemy.

Occasionally, Bird has speakers in to the museum. And he’s negotiating to get a Tuskegee airman as a speaker.

“They have great ideas how this can be a resource center, a museum for making people aware,” said Raymond Elliott, a retired chemist from Amherst, Mass., who spoke about his experiences as a combat engineer in the south Pacific earlier this summer. “We should be looking at history as not black history, or white history, but as American history.”

Bird, 65, describes himself as “a military museum guy” and collector of World War II memorabilia. He helped start the Vermont Military Museum at the headquarters of the Vermont National Guard, but he stopped doing that when the paid position was eliminated.

He wanted to start a World War II museum.

“To get anyone to come to your museum, it has to be different than anybody else’s,” Bird said. “I decided this is something that is neglected and should no longer be neglected.”

So he formed a nonprofit organization and now raises money, a little bit at a time.

He heard about the vacant schoolhouse, just off Route 7, from his state representative. It closed its doors in the 1960s, but was used as a daycare center until shortly before Bird moved in almost two years ago.

Bird, who is single, used the profits from the sale of his house and then his credit card to put on a new roof and pay for electrical, plumbing and heating work. Much remains to be done.

The building is handicapped accessible, but it doesn’t have a handicapped accessible rest room and he can’t afford the $5,000 cost, so he can’t bring in bus tours, as he’d like.

Bird said that as he collected more information and exhibits about the service of black service members he’d replace the generic exhibits.

He estimates his budget this year is about $10,000.

“The day I retired, I decided I will no longer worry. That’s what I’m working on. Someday between now and when the fuel bill comes due, the money will come in.”

He’s started fundraising, but no matter. He’s committed to the museum for life.

“I am having a hell of a good time. I never made appreciable amounts of money. I never married. What am I going to do for the rest of my life?” he said.

“Eventually, I will leave enough money so they can hire someone,” Bird said. “The first plan is to live a long time because it will take a long time.”

But things that help him out appear, apparently, out of nowhere.

He first heard of Raven Crone, when the 64-year-old Charlestown, N.H., woman called him. She’d seen a newspaper story about Bird’s museum.

She now maintains the museum’s Web site, at least partly to honor her father’s legacy.

“I never met my father. He died when I was 2,” said Crone, who put a short story about him on the Web site.

Earlier this year, Bird received a call from someone he didn’t know, inviting him to a Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony in Washington honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.

“You can never tell any day when you open your mail what’s going to happen,” he said.