At a brunch in Roxbury Saturday, black veterans, who have waited decades, finally began to get their due.
Kenneth Perry, 58, was surprised but happy to be recognized at the third annual African American Veteran Appreciation Brunch.
In a teary interview, Perry remembered the death of comrades in the 1983 invasion of Grenada — still too painful to discuss — and his decadelong spiral into addiction when he returned to Dorchester.
But after his son was born, Perry pulled his life together and started a catering company that has serviced previous iterations of the appreciation brunch.
“I knew I could do better,” he said.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who hosted the event for the third year running, told the crowd of about 200, “What we’re celebrating here today is the contribution of African-Americans to all facets of life through the military going back centuries.”
He acknowledged that criticisms of inequality, including diversity of city agencies, persist, but he pointed to a young veteran and firefighter-to-be who was in attendance as a sign of hope.
“There are some stories about not having enough diversity in areas of government,” Walsh said in his speech. “All those stories became published stories, and what we have to do is take those stories [and] turn them into positives. And to see the result of that in this young man holding his baby,” Walsh said. “. . . He fought for his country and because of that . . . he is now going on to the fire department for his son to have an unbelievable life in the future. That’s what this is all about.”
Allen A. Curry, a 68-year-old Roxbury veteran and former firefighter, had waited far longer to get that kind of public shout-out. But Saturday, he was a minor celebrity at the brunch, where many shook his hand and thanked him after his name was announced from the podium.
In 1976, Curry was the first black firefighter to join the all-white Engine 52 in Dorchester as the fire department went through a sometimes contentious, court-ordered diversification.
Five years earlier, he was drafted out of Roxbury and into Vietnam, where he served as a “tunnel rat,” dropping into Viet Cong tunnels without any idea what was waiting below.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Curry said after the brunch. “I was terrified every time I went underground, not knowing what was there.”
After the event, Curry and Ernest Washington Jr., of Roxbury, reminisced about how little gratitude they got after they returned from Vietnam. Washington summed it up by flipping the bird. “It was not a warm reception,” he said.
With the civil rights struggle underway, “veterans of color took a hit,” said Washington, 71. Celebrations like Saturday’s “are a long time coming for black veterans.”
Curry and Washington both said that though progress still needs to be made, the event means something to them.
“Other cities and states don’t even remember to talk about” the contributions of black veterans, according to Washington.
“The mayor and this administration are gracious enough to say thank you. It’s a beautiful thing.”
In a brief interview after the event, Walsh declined to elaborate on issues of diversity in Boston today.
“Today is a day of celebration of our veterans and the story should be about the people that put their life on the line and fought for our country . . . what they’ve done to give us the ability to push us, that we have to do more for our veterans and for our black community.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org