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Black veterans close out Black History Month with appreciation brunch in Boston

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, right, greeted honoree Lillian O’Neal during the Black Veterans Appreciation Brunch in Boston on Saturday.CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Mayor Michelle Wu and the city’s Office of Veterans’ Services honored three Black veterans for their years of continued service to the Boston community.

By Ivy Scott Globe Staff,Updated February 25, 2023, 6:29 p.m.

Standing proudly in her Army fatigues and combat boots, Marcia Sharpe snapped photos of her “brothers and sisters” in service at a brunch honoring Black veterans Saturday morning.

“I’m always looking for new ways to give back,” said Sharpe, 57, who said she immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1996 to help take care of her mother, before joining the Army two years later.

“I wanted to give back to America because I was so thankful to be here,” she said.

Sharpe, who is earning her degree in media broadcasting while working as a disability advocate, was one of roughly 200 veterans, family members, active duty military personnel, and public officials who flooded Dorchester’s Florian Hall to honor Greater Boston’s Black veterans during the final weekend of Black History Month.

Massachusetts National Guard veteran Marcia Sharpe listened to a speaker during the Black Veterans Appreciation Brunch. CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

The seventh annual Black Veterans Appreciation Brunch, which was organized by the city’s Office of Veterans’ Services, honored three local veterans for their ongoing contributions to Boston and served as an opportunity to celebrate both retired and active duty service members in the Black community for their sacrifices.

You have “not only faced bullets of war, but also the weapons of discrimination,” said Robert Santiago, commissioner of the Office of Veterans Services. “We need to keep these stories alive, and we need to show our gratitude.”

Geraldine Allen, a nurse and retired Air Force master sergeant, said she’s been pleased with changes over the years in the community’s treatment of veterans, “but there’s always room for improvement.”

“Too many vets get out of the service and can’t find a job, even three, four years later,” said Allen, 59. “I know they can’t take care of everybody, but they should take care of more.”

Allen, who served 22 years as a medic and retired in 2007, said it was rare to find women — especially Black women — willing to serve so many years. However, she was lucky to witness several Black women rise up through the ranks during her time, she said.

Deployed to England and Kuwait during the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, Allen recalled her time as an aerospace medical technician: waiting impatiently on the landing strip for planes loaded with injured patients, hustling soldiers on stretchers into a truck, and performing emergency medical care as they rushed to the hospital.

“We had a lot of Marines coming in from Saudi Arabia, and sometimes the wounds weren’t so bad,” she remembered. “But burns were the most serious. Thinking about those affects you a little more, and of course, you didn’t hear about mental health too much back then.”

Mayor Michelle Wu, who attended the brunch alongside several city councilors and Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden, stressed that the Office of Veterans’ Services was committed to working harder to close the gap in resources for Black veterans, particularly in the early months of transition back to civilian life.

“Our Black veterans… fought for a vision and ideal of freedom and liberation that was not a reality at home, and that is the true definition of giving,” Wu said, before turning her attention to the three awardees. Excel High School JROTC senior army instructor and retired lieutenant colonel Anthony Hinson, poet and auxiliary Army member Lillian O’Neal, and former Marine Corps chef Kenneth Perry all received awards from the city.

“From our nourishment in the form of food, or poetry, or mentorship, we are so grateful and so thankful [for] all the ways you pour into our community,” Wu said, to rousing applause. “Our city is incredibly stronger and richer because of you.”

Honorees Anthony Hinson and Lillian O’Neal talked during the brunch. CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Over a meal of fried chicken and mac-n-cheese — prepared by none other than Perry — Stenard Ross and his daughter, Ashley Ross, reflected on the highs and lows during the time each spent in combat.

“It was heart-wrenching,” said Stenard Ross, 59, who was deployed to Iraq in 2002 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “There were on days and off days, but you always had to be ready to fight.”

Ross said that returning to the United States after deployment was “like a breath of fresh air.”

“You really wanted to kiss the ground, you were so glad to be back on your own soil,” he said.

Both father and daughter called the “camaraderie” the most valuable part of their experience, but said they faced repeated struggles with racism and discrimination.

“I am who I am because of my experiences, but there are some parts of that experience I wish I didn’t have to go through,” said Ashley Ross, 34, who served as a “gunner” in the military police and was deployed to Baghdad in 2007 at the age of 18, assigned to protect government officials.

“I was always ready to shoot, the best gunner by far, but it’s because I was afraid for my life. Not just of being killed by the enemy, but terrified of all the white men I trained with,” she said. “There were always obstacles.”

Even today, her father said, a great deal of racism remains. No matter what I did, no one appreciated me. … Only my fellow soldiers. They appreciated me.”

O’Neal, 83, said shetakes particular joy in writing poetry about Black veterans and service members, and is proud to have devoted her life and writing to “lifting up the stories of all the Black people who saved so many lives.”

“I started writing in 1985 and I haven’t stopped since. If I’m not talking about it, who will?” she asked. “When [traditional historians] tell stories, they never tell the truth. … They try to keep us in the dark, but there’s no stopping us.”

Ivy Scott can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.