Published May 27th, 2022 at 3:00 PM
Margaret Pender first met her Uncle Willy when she opened a letter summoning her family to the White House.
Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. was one of seven African American World War II veterans awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton in 1997. James was killed at age 25 when he willingly gave his life to save his platoon leader from SS gunfire in Cologne, Germany, on April 8, 1945.
Recognition of his valor was delayed by decades of discrimination, which made the moment bittesweet for his family.
“I was just completely excited about (the Medal of Honor),” said Patricia Greene, another niece of James. “But the one thing that came to my mind was, ‘I wonder why it took so long.’”
The Medal of Honor sent the family on a hunt for information about their long lost relative, but they couldn’t so much as find a photograph of him. This was partially due to a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, but Pender also feels that it was due to discrimination.
“To me it’s like, if you don’t care about a person, you don’t care about keeping records on them,” Pender said. “To me it was like no one cared about him, and so it’s very emotional to think that we live in a society where some people are not given a second thought.”
When they returned from the White House, the family waited for acknowledgement from Kansas City, Missouri, James’ hometown. Now, more than two decades later, they’re taking matters into their own hands.
Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.