Seventy-five years ago, my grandfather James Doc Richards was one of 73,000 U.S. troops to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. I know this because he told me so.
About a year before my grandfather passed away, he came to visit with me. I took the day off and we spent it together. Over lunch, he shared stories of participating in the Normandy invasion. He said he would never forget the sound of bullets whizzing by his helmet, the sights of death, the utter chaos. He also reflected on the sting of serving in a segregated United States Army. For example, his commanding officer was white and functionally illiterate, and he was black and college educated, so one of his responsibilities each morning was to read him his mail.
My grandfather was an extrovert who could talk with anyone about anything. But for most of his life he never spoke about his World War II experiences. Reflecting on the D-Day 75th commemoration over the past weekend and thinking back on the day he revealed his involvement to me, I am filled with regret for what I didn’t ask him that day. What company did he serve in? On which beach did he land? What role did he play in the invasion?
These are questions I might never fully answer, but history provides some context for what his experience might have been. Historical narratives of D-Day largely cut out soldiers of color, but they were there in Normandy serving their country and my grandfather was one of them. The US military was segregated at that time and most black soldiers were not permitted to serve in front line combat units. Instead they served as service and supply troops, artillerymen, military police, and in other rear-echelon companies and battalions. These roles still exposed them to combat. Knowing the threat of death my grandfather experienced helps me to better understand the sense of mission and purpose in which he lived his life post-war.
James Edward Richards was born in 1920 in Suffolk, Virginia to James Lee Richards and Annie Biggs Richards. He descends from a line of James Richards tracing back to his great grandfather who was born enslaved around 1849 and who lived his life in Northampton County, North Carolina, just below the Virginia border. His Suffolk roots trace back to his third great grandmother Patsey White a free black woman born in the late 1700s. His Virginia roots traced back even further through his grandmother Florence Cumbo who descends from the first Africans to arrive in seventeenth century Jamestown, Virginia.
He attended South Carolina State College graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1942. In 1943 before heading off to war he married my grandmother Athalia Joyner of Suffolk. By D-Day in 1944 he was a father to a newborn son, my uncle. They would have two more children, my mother and my aunt. After his military service, he discovered that race made it difficult for him to pursue a career in his chosen field of chemistry, so he attended Howard University to train as a pharmacist. While at Howard he served as President of his senior class.
Upon graduation from Howard in 1950 he returned home to Suffolk VA to open its first and only black pharmacy, so his community could get their prescriptions filled by walking in the front door. In the south prior to integration, black customers were forced to use the back or alley door entrances of white-owned businesses, still with no guarantee of being served. I recently learned that his business was listed in the Green Book for Negro Motorists, made famous by the 2018 movie “Green Book” which won an Oscar for Best Picture.
You could characterize my grandfather as an entrepreneur, but he was much more of a community man. His service to the community earned him the nickname Doc. He was part of a group of medical professionals who practiced in an area of Suffolk called The Fairgrounds. They were committed to serving their community.
Many young people earned their first jobs at Suffolk Professional Pharmacy. Sick community members were never turned away for prescriptions even if they didn’t have the money. People could count on Doc to fill their prescriptions at any time of night if needed. The pharmacy closed but its legacy continues to this day.
My grandfather helped to liberate Europe from oppression only to return home to the oppression of Jim Crow. Imagine putting your life on the line so Europe could be free, yet not be afforded freedom in your own country. His burden is unimaginable, loaded with the nightmares of his war experiences and made heavier by the daily slights and injustices his country forced him, his family and his community to endure.
He represents a powerful story of black resilience, triumph and agency over circumstance and a profound commitment to service. My grandfather dedicated his life to helping others. He is inspiration to me. I am so thankful that my grandfather survived D-day, served his country honorably, and came home and served his family and community. Thank you to the Greatest Generation for your service to our country. Thank you, Granddaddy.