On race: ‘We are coming more together’

Valerie Urbanik | Oberlin News-Tribune

Eugene Buford reflects on the importance of Fourth of July and the improvement of race relations in the past 60 years.

Equality — that is what the oldest active member in Oberlin American Legion Post 656 has enjoyed seeing grow between caucasians and African Americans over the decades, and what he is celebrating this Independence Day.

Eugene Buford, an 89-year-old Navy veteran, has watched the United States grow away from heinous conditions where blacks were not allowed to eat at all-white restaurants or to walk down the street next to whites.

Since he was discharged from the service in March 1946, he’s seen race relations improve. Racism clearly still exists today, as proven by the slaying of nine worshippers earlier this month at a South Carolina church, but Buford remains optimistic about the future.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Buford said of the social climate in the U.S. “We are coming more together. If you have all of us together we can overcome a lot of that stuff. God made us all equal.”

Buford was drafted into the Navy on April 15, 1944, when he was a junior in high school.

His training consisted of learning how to march, completing obstacle courses, swimming, and shooting a gun. Buford said there were very few African Americans in the Navy but the other soldiers treated him all right despite the color of his skin.

The soldiers would train and eat together but at night, the caucasian and African Americans slept in separate rooms.

“I couldn’t understand it, but that’s the way it was,” the veteran said.

Buford entered the service when World War II was ending, along with Oberlin’s oldest veteran, 101-year-old James Lancaster.

“They had me set for submarine duty,” he said. “I was ready to go overseas.”

Instead he was stationed in Williamsburg, Va., where he was in charge of new recruits. Buford said his favorite part about the service was when he could get out of camp and go into town.

However, town was not always the best place for Buford and other African Americans.

“If I wanted a sandwich from a restaurant I had to go around back and get it,” Buford said. “If there was a white woman coming up the street, we had to get off the street.”

The Fourth of July is a holiday the veteran really appreciates because it brings so many people together.

“It’s really a wonderful thing to celebrate the Fourth of July, not only for me but mostly for other veterans too,” Buford said.

He encourages people to remember what this holiday really stands for and how important it is to be free.

“A lot of people need to remember the soldiers that put their lives (in danger),” Buford said. “We put our lives up to save them.”

Buford remembers when guns used to be shot off on the Fourth of July in remembrance of the wars along with fireworks.

Despite the veteran’s memories and his feelings on the importance of Independence Day, he says he would not go back into service.

“I don’t think I would have signed up,” Buford said of being drafted into the Navy. “People were getting killed.”

Buford does have one wish and that’s for both of Oberlin’s posts, 102 and 656, to become one unit.

At the moment, they are divided along black and white lines. Mergers have been attempted in the past but have been unsuccessful, according to Post 656 commander John Cannon.

Valerie Urbanik can be reached at 440-775-1611 or on Twitter @ValUrbanik.