Of Thee They Sing

Behind its guardian lion statues, the War Memorial building testifies to the liberties veterans fought to preserve.

By Wil S. Hylton - June 1998

Of Thee They Sing

Behind its guardian lion statues, the War Memorial building testifies to the liberties veterans fought to preserve.

By Wil S. Hylton - June 1998

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New and immaculate, the War Memorial on Gay Street was draped in sun­light for its 1931 opening, with Mayor Howard Jack­ son on the portico, facing City Hall, looking out over the crowd.

One year into the Great Depres­sion, though, Jackson's outlook was far from sunny. "In some homes today, there is more suffering, more heartache than war ever brought," he announced. "Our real obligation to those who died [in World War I] is to find a solution to the economic problems of the present."

His present, of course, is now the past. Today's banks have real money inside. The stock market is soaring. Employment is at a record high. But other problems reminiscent of the Depression linger, as problems do. There are still hobos under bridges. Still soup lines. Still factories closing. And old and forgotten, the marble War Memorial has lingered, too, darkening in city soot, weather­ ing, growing weary.

Now it sits draped in a blanket of fog and blackness on a cold March midnight. On the front portico, where a mayor once spoke of better­ment, a homeless Vietnam vet named Bill sleeps with his head pressed against a tall golden door. From here, the War Memorial seems heartbreaking: soiled and silent in the shadows of downtown. Even the front courtyard appears disheveled, muddled in low mist, that patch of land where "The Star­Spangled Banner" was first per­formed in 1814. And across the courtyard, City Hall tolls its bell: one o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock, four. Nothing changes, save the scatter of rubbish whirling in rich, black breeze.

But come 5:30, light nips at the horizon. A short woman sips coffee at the corner and shivers, hawking newspapers for 25 cents. Police offi­cers hasten toward headquarters. Batches of businesspeople bustle by, ignoring the old memorial, and Bill awakens on the portico, fumbles with a handful of cigarette butts, and lights one.

At 7:30, Civic Works employees perform calisthenics in the front plaza, and at 8:05, a car pulls to the curb. A candidate for U.S. citi­zenship emerges, ready to be sworn in as part of a monthly cer­emony. She is old, feeble, with light-brown skin and long gray hair, with two tall sons in turbans helping her from the sedan to a wheelchair. And she is smiling up at the War Memorial, a smile of hope and excitement. Long ago, just after this monu­ment was built, this old woman would not have been allowed to take her citizenship oath here. State veter­ans had forbid use of the building "for other than veterans." But that idea didn't last—this is American, after all—and the policy was overturned on Constitutional grounds.

Eventually, the building became a museum, and was rededicated to also honor veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The Disabled America Veterans, the American Legeion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars took office space over the years, and in 1997, Cynthia D. Coates became the building's first non-veteran, its first female, and its first African-American executive director.

Today, the first day of spring, Coates is in her office downstairs as 351 citizens-to-be assemble in the auditorium above. She listens as Lloyd Marcus sings "Celebrate America" and Howard German croons "America the Beautiful." She hears 351 voices—legal alien voices—take the oath of U.S. citizenship and she hears congratulations booming from the stage, cries of "Welcome to America!"

Then she hears 351 voices—citizen voices, now—whooping on the portico, on the stairs, on Gay Street and beyond. And Cynthia Coates sits in her chair smiling at the joyous sound of her old and maybe not entirely forgotten building. A building still of patriotism, still of pride, and now, again, of hope.




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