By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Army Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton was two months shy of his 22nd birthday when his platoon tried to take a hill near Chipo-Ri, South Korea. The platoon leader was wounded, so Charlton took command.
He rallied his men, who had suffered heavy casualties, and led the next assault, only to be pushed back again. Despite a severe chest wound, he refused medical attention and led another charge. He alone eliminated the remaining enemy emplacement, though he had been hit again by a grenade. His wounds led to his death June 2, 1951.
The next year, Charlton was awarded the Medal of Honor, reserved for the "bravest of the brave," and he was supposed to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But it didn't happen.
No one knows exactly why it took 57 years for Charlton to receive his hero's burial in the nation's cemetery. But yesterday, all that mattered was that more than 150 friends, relatives and others gathered for the long-awaited ceremony.
Charlton is the only black Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War buried at Arlington; there are 15 other black Medal of Honor recipients buried there. Medal of Honor winners automatically qualify for burial at Arlington.
"This was a historical moment, not only for the family but also for myself," said Bob Gumbs, a veteran and one of the many people who worked to get Charlton buried at Arlington. "It's really a culmination of a series of events. . . . It's the culmination of a long effort."
Charlton's niece, Zenobia Penn, said she grew up hearing stories about her uncle "Connie," the good guy, the nice guy. But the conversation would inevitably shift to "the injustice of him not being buried in Arlington Cemetery," said Penn, 57, of New London, Conn.
According to family history, relatives had received Charlton's medal and were in a caravan, on their way to Arlington Cemetery, with a horse-drawn buggy carrying the flag-covered coffin, Penn said.
"As they were approaching Arlington Cemetery, they were stopped by some folks in pickup trucks with shotguns, pointing at them and telling them he wasn't going to be buried there," Penn said. "They were just racists. They weren't military. They weren't Arlington representatives. They were just racists. They didn't want to celebrate -- it wasn't time yet for the South to celebrate a black military hero."
Penn's grandparents buried Charlton in Pocahontas, Va., just across the border from West Virginia. In 1989, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the American Legion made arrangements for him to be buried at the American Legion cemetery in Beckley, W.Va., where he remained until this week.
Charlton was honored in other ways. The Navy christened the USNS Charlton in 1999. There is a Charlton Memorial Bridge in West Virginia and a Charlton Gardens in New York.
Charlton Gardens is in the Bronx, where Charlton lived before enlisting. New York City named the property in his honor the year after he died. The city Department of Parks and Recreation Web site says Charlton "was barred from burial in Arlington National Cemetery because he was African-American."
Arlington Superintendent John Metzler said credentials, not skin color, are what matter at Arlington. He said no soldier has been barred because of race.
"We have always buried soldiers and race was never a question," Metzler said.
Arlington historian Tom Sherlock said African Americans were buried at the cemetery within days of its opening May 13, 1864. Members of what were then called the "United States Colored Troops" were buried in Section 27, right over the hill from Section 40, where Charlton was buried yesterday.
The separate-sections policy ended after President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces with Executive Order 9981 on July 25, 1948.
Sherlock said he doesn't doubt that the family might have encountered hostility on the way to the cemetery in the 1950s. But yesterday's burial was a "victory over whatever nonsense they heard," he said. "This brave soldier is here in Arlington, where he belonged all along, and we're honored to have his remains here."
Cemetery officials said they had not heard of any similar incidents.
The family's decision to resume the push for an Arlington burial stemmed from a racist incident Penn's 6-year-old granddaughter suffered at school this year.
"I made a conscious decision to research Uncle Connie, to do the best I could and compile everything the best I could," Penn said, "so she was aware of her history, of black history -- to be proud of being a black female, despite the shade of her skin."
Penn learned for the first time about the Bronx park named after her uncle. She discovered that a group of primarily black veterans had formed the Friends of Charlton Gardens and had raised $1.5 million to renovate the park and rededicated it in 2005. Unbeknown to her, they had been looking for Charlton's family for years. She reached out to them and met them on Memorial Day.
Penn contacted her congressman, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), for help.
It wound up being remarkably simple. Ed Burke, Courtney's military and veterans affairs field representative, said that he helped the family obtain certification that Charlton had been awarded the Medal of Honor and that Arlington accepted it. In September, the family was given the date when Charlton would be buried for the third and final time.
"It was bigger than anything I ever expected," Penn said. "We only just wanted to right the wrong. We had no idea this was going to keep going into something as monumental as this."