ATLANTIC CITY — Elizabeth Marie Rose lived and worked in Turkey and the Philippines as an Air Force nurse in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until she made it back stateside that she experienced racism during her military service.
“The local people in Turkey had never seen really very many black women, and they thought I was an African queen,” said Rose, a resident of the resort, smiling. “So they treated me very royally. It was only when I came back to America that I was shocked.”
One of her sergeants told her, “You wouldn’t be in this position if you weren’t black.”
Rose, who served in the Air Force from 1973 to 1979 preparing injured soldiers for flights home, is one of 400,000 veterans who live in New Jersey, more than 52,000 of whom are black, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
She also is one of 52 members of Kenneth B. Hawkins American Legion Post 61, situated in the All Wars Memorial Building on Adriatic Avenue. The building, built 100 years ago to honor the resort’s black veterans, is known to locals as the Old Soldier’s Home.
Two weeks after Michael F. Johnson graduated from Atlantic City High School in 1960, he joined the Army, working as a mechanic on tanks.
“I grew up right down the street in Stanley Holmes Village, so there wasn’t money really to send me (and my brother) to college at the same time,” said Johnson, 76. “It was a leading opportunity to learn things and meet people and do some limited traveling in the United States.”
But racism, he said, existed in the military just like anywhere else.
“It’s somewhat like being black in America, you know?” Johnson said. “You have your certain incidents from time to time. I had a few, and it’s all how you handle them.”
One incident that stuck out, Johnson said, was while he was stationed in Kentucky and a white soldier had called another black solider a racial slur.
“What was surprising to me, another white soldier from West Virginia stepped to the soldier that made that statement and corrected him, telling him, ‘We don’t do that here,’” Johnson said. “That caught me by surprise. It was a very pleasant surprise.”
Patricia Tatum, the first woman to serve as commander in the post’s history, was in the Air Force for nine years, from 1973 to 1982.
After growing up in Detroit, military service was an opportunity for her to travel to Texas, Colorado, Utah and outside the country.
“These are all places that I had just heard about on a geography test in school. But now I get to go,” said Tatum, 64, of Atlantic City.
While she was in Texas for basic training, she sent flowers that had bloomed in November to her mother in Detroit. She described being in awe of the Rocky Mountains when she flew into Denver for the first time.
“That was strange to me, to have flowers that were out and I could pick in November,” she said. “It expands your horizons. You’re exposed to different things.”
But, Tatum said, sometimes there was tension because of her race.
“There was some times when I’d say I encountered some racism, but you deal with it and keep moving,” she said. “There were times that there were tensions because there were people coming from different areas. People that lived in the barracks that told me they had never seen any black people before.”
She said other service members came from places that didn’t have African Americans at the time.
“I was a curiosity or I was a caricature depending on what they had seen on TV and their socialization,” she said. “So there were a lot of times where I set the standard for the next African American they would meet.”
Like Johnson, Tatum said she ran into racism both inside and outside the military.
“You always have to be cognizant of where you live,” Tatum said. “We do live in America, and that’s par for the course. Going to other places, people wanted to touch my hair; they wanted to touch my skin because they didn’t see anyone who looked like me.”
She said she did not take offense when people were genuinely curious about her skin color. It only becomes a problem when people are mean-spirited.
All three veterans and comrades at Post 61 said young people of color should give military service a try.
Blacks made up 17 percent of active-duty military personnel in 2015, out of more than 1 million U.S. service members, according to a Pew Research Center study.
“I would like to see more of our young people, especially people of color, going into the military because of the tremendous opportunities, plus the discipline you get,” Johnson said. “It’s a good opportunity for a young person, male or female, to explore and figure out what they want to do.”