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MY HERO: My Father’s Response to Racism Inspired Me to Serve

The Williams family has produced four generations of trailblazing Black soldiers

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Left to Right: Marion Williams, Howard Williams Jr., Howard Williams Sr., Howard Williams Sr., newspaper clipping of Howard Williams Sr and Miriam Bowman's wedding announcement, Alexis Jones and her infant son, Douglas Williams.
Sean McCabe (Source: Williams Family)
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Getty Images/AARP

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As a boy in South Carolina in the late 1950s, Howard Williams Jr. knew that his father was serving his country, but that much of that same country viewed him as inferior because he was Black.

On long road trips between military bases in the South, motels had “Whites Only” signs in the windows. When Howard Williams Sr. — who later rose to the rank of colonel — was too tired to continue, the family would stretch out and sleep in the car rather than face the indignity of trying to get a room.

“Truman desegregated the military in 1948 but desegregation in the country took a lot longer than that,” Williams Jr., 68, told AARP Veteran Report. “There was a lot of discrimination back then, but my father didn’t let it stop him.”

It didn’t stop Williams Jr. either. Inspired by his father, he became an Army officer too, serving 22 years in the artillery and retiring as a lieutenant colonel. “He was principled and courageous, determined to be the best person he could be and the best military officer he could be — probably in that order,” said Williams Jr. “My father is my hero.”

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Over the course of more than a century, four generations of the Williams family have served in the U.S. Army, their experiences mirroring their country’s changing treatment of African Americans in uniform.

The first was Marion Williams, an enlisted man in the all-Black 371st Infantry Regiment under French command during World War I who was gassed on the frontlines.

His son Howard Williams Sr. joined up in 1953. He became a pilot and flew fixed-wing aircraft in Korea, after the conflict there had ended, and helicopters near the Cambodian border from 1967 to 1968 during the Vietnam War.

“He saw Vietnam from the air and said it was beautiful, but he never spoke about his combat experience,” said Williams Jr.

Howard Williams Jr. was the first in the family to attend West Point, where he was in the class of 1976.

It wasn’t always easy, but the Williams family persisted. “My father tells a story of taking me to a big Army football game when I was a toddler while he was doing basic training at Fort Benning,” said Williams Jr.

“The game had to be held off base in Columbus, Georgia. In the stands, he was approached by ushers who said we couldn’t sit in that section. My father was furious. He went to the commander of the post to report what had happened, and we left. Not long after that, a notice was put out — there would be no more Army games held in Columbus. My father changed things.”

Williams Jr. went on to be a professor at West Point, where his daughter Danielle was born. Danielle, 36 (Harvard class of 2008), and her sister Alexis, 38 (West Point class of 2007), served as Army officers in the Iraq War. Danielle’s twin, Douglas (West Point class of 2009), served in the war in Afghanistan.

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Danielle, an author and advocate for diversity in outdoor activities, is a social strategist at AARP. Alexis, who is a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, works for a large tech company. Douglas, an entrepreneur, recently won an award for his eco-friendly furniture business.

“I am so proud of them,” Williams Jr. said, beaming as he spoke of his children. “They have all done very well and taken their own paths. My job as a parent was to try to make sure that were not disadvantaged by what other people thought of the color of their skin. My wife and I raised them to try to achieve, to do well in school and to not feel bad that they were good at it.”

Col. Howard Williams Sr. is now 91 and lives in Virginia Beach.

“I give all the credit to my dad,” said Williams Jr. “Because of him, I did not have to wallow in being told I was not good enough. And, give the military its due. Because of my father’s career in the U.S. military, I had enough opportunities to be able to see my own worth and self-value.”

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Do you have a veteran hero whose story might be a MY HERO story in AARP Veteran Report? If so, please contact our editors here.

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