The African American Military History Museum is holding its third annual Story Time with a Soldier to celebrate Black History Month. Every Friday the museum invites a group of elementary school students to participate in a tour of the museum and sit down and talk with a local veteran about what it means to serve your country.
Museum programs and engagement coordinator Venessa Molden said she believes that the event is a great learning experience and a way to encourage reading in children.
“Literacy is important, as is learning how to read at an early age,” Molden said. “This is often the first time the children meet a soldier, so we do this to give them an opportunity to interact with a soldier that has served and sacrificed for our country.”
The building that the museum currently occupies was built as the United Service Organization which was a recreational community center for soldiers of the segregated U.S. Military that were stationed in Camp Shelby during WWII.
Museum guide and local resident Eddie McGowon used to deliver papers when the museum was the USO and recalls it being a “home away from home” for black soldiers.
“When I used to come in here with the mail, there was a lot of fun going on, a lot of dancing. The Jitterbug was ongoing during this time,” McGowon said. “It was very fruitful. You had a lot of people enjoying themselves. It was really warm and homely.”
“A lot of the guys that came here weren’t too educated, so the people in the community lent their expertise and helped them out,” McGowon said. “Along with giving them to have R and R [rest and relaxation] from the military hardships in Camp Shelby.”
Friday’s Storytime with a Soldier featured retired U.S. army veteran Sergeant First Class Patricia Thompson. Thompson sat down with the children of a local elementary school and read “The Alphabet Book of Military Transportation.” The children read along as Thompson showed pictures of Strykers, Thunderbolts and unarmored Ariel vehicles, finishing with a lesson on the military alphabet.
Thompson served in the Army for 24 years, having joined at the age of 19 because of a catchy phrase that caught her attention when she was younger.
“I knew I wanted to join when I was in the 10th grade,” Thompson said. “The phrase was ‘Be all you can be,’ and I knew that my life was more than just my home town of Kalamazoo, Mich. I knew life was more than just this.”
She made her way up the ranks as a construction engineer and was stationed all around the world, having served everywhere from Alaska to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands before settling down in Hattiesburg, Miss. Thompson says that the community around Hattiesburg gave her a sense of belonging after her deployment.
“I came here after Afghanistan and never left,” she said. “Once I retired I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and Hattiesburg embraced me, you know, made me feel like I belong here, and being a part of this museum has given me an outlook to continue to serve my country while giving back to the community,” Thompson said.
Thompson said she believes Storytime with a Soldier is important for everyone. “It’s for soldiers to give back to the community and for educating our youth about our military. It’s for those who may want to join the military or have parents in the military and don’t understand what it means to be a soldier.”
“When they see somebody like myself who’s been in and can talk to the children about the futures they can have I think it’s pretty awesome,” Thompson said.