FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM IN A SEGREGATED ARMY
Exactly 54 years ago today, Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton (1929-1951) died while fighting in North Korea. His death stands at the bittersweet end of a long and paradoxical era in American history. Sergeant Charlton was among the last African American soldiers to give his life for the United States in a segregated military.
Born in East Gulf, West Virginia (and later moved to the Bronx), Charlton enlisted in the Army at the onset of the Korean War (1950-1953). Though originally assigned to a desk position, he volunteered for combat duty with Company C in the 24th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Army Infantry division. Nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers by Native Americans, the 24th Infantry was formed from an early set of four all-black regiments created by Congress in 1866.
On June 2, 1951, the Buffalo Soldiers showed that their historic courage had not faded. Charlton’s platoon commander was seriously wounded during an assault on Hill 543 in Korea near Chipo-ri. Charlton assumed command of the platoon, rallied the men, and re-launched the attack, destroying two enemy positions with rifle fire and grenades. The platoon suffered heavy casualties and faltered, but Charlton regrouped the men and launched a second attack. He received a severe chest wound but refused medical attention and led a third charge, which advanced his men to the crest of a hill. Seeing the remaining strongpoint on the opposite hill, he charged it alone. Charlton was hit by another grenade, but lived long enough to destroy the enemy position.
In 1952, Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart for his "conspicuous gallantry," superb leadership, and the extraordinary sacrifice he made in service to his country. Though President Harry S. Truman officially desegregated the United States military on July 26, 1948, a few all-black units—including Charlton’s—remained. Since the American military was still partially segregated, Charlton was barred from burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, he was buried in his family cemetery in his native West Virginia.
In 1952, the City Council passed a local law that named a park, in the Morrisania section of the Bronx (bounded by East 164th Street, Teasdale Place, Boston Road, and Cauldwell Avenue) in honor of Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton. A ferry boat that traveled to Governors Island was also named for him that year. In 1954, Charlton’s home state of West Virginia named a bridge for him, and in 1958, Parks & Recreation installed plantings in Van Cortlandt Park in his honor. In 1989, the Medal of Honor Society located and exhumed Charlton’s grave and re-interred his remains in the American Legion Cemetery in Beckley, West Virginia, to rightly honor him. The United States Army named a barracks complex in South Korea after him in 1993, and in 1999 the United States military christened a 62,644-ton cargo transport ship in Charlton’s honor.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, Parks & Recreation, the Friends of Charlton Garden, and residents of the South Bronx gathered at Charlton Gardens to remember the notable though largely often unknown story of this local hero. On Friday, May 27, the community worked to clean and repaint the park (Parks & Recreation augmented their work on Saturday). That same day, Congressman José Serrano presided over a memorial event in honor of Sgt. Charlton that included a military color guard, 21-gun salute, a reading of the names of the soldiers from the Bronx who died during the Korean War, and a playing of "Taps."
-written by John Mattera
QUOTATION FOR THE DAY
"A man always has two reasons for what he does—a good one, and the real one."
John Pierpont Morgan