By Safiya-April Du Ewa
From A Northern Louisiana Village to a Northern California Village
73 years ago, in February 1944, when Jesse Perry Jr. was just 18 years old, he reported to the reception center at the Presidio in San Francisco. He’d been drafted into the World War II. His assignment was to the 3737th Trucking Company, a segregated African- American outfit, just two years after his father moved his family to Weed, California from his birthplace in Winnfield, Louisiana. Now 92 years old, a retired, educator, World War II veteran, loving husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, world traveler, and celebrated dancer with a zest for life Perry has written his memoir.
Perry’s memoir of an enduring African-American family woven together with love, faith, education and hard work, is dedicated to his wife, Maxine of sixty-five years, his sons, Desmond, Derrick and Brian and to his grandchildren; Salina, Derrick Jr., Stephen, Allen and Quinn and to his great granddaughter, Aliana.
Perry’s story is built on vivid vignettes that represent important moments in his life. “I remember mama taking my siblings and me to what was called a ‘revival meeting’ by our circuit minister. The ‘Revival’ brought the minister to our church for three nights to ‘save souls.’ On the second night, mama looked over at me suggesting that it was time to step forward, shake the minister’s hand and commit my soul to the Lord.” This first vignette is entitled, ‘Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey.’ Perry was just ten years old.
Perry recounts some perilous World War II stories. “Following the famous ‘Battle of the Bulge’, I was assigned to the 122nd Quartermaster Battalion Mobile Headquarters located in Munich where I became Operations Sergeant. In April of 1946, Perry returned home from war with the high hopes of getting an education and a job. “We African- American servicemen faced many challenges upon our return to civil life following World War II.” Perry recalls, “There were even hangings of Black veterans in the South.”
In the summer of 1958 Perry completed a teacher training program in San Francisco and became the first African-American male to teach English at the High School level in Oakland. But one of Perry’s pedagogical achievements for which he is most proud of, was helping his father learn to write his name. “I would notice dad signing pay checks with an X. I asked my father if he would like to learn how to write his name. He said, ‘I sure would son, will you teach me?”’ Perry was just twelve years old.
As we peer into Perry’s life saga we experience the summer of 1948 when Perry participated in what he believed to be the first ‘sit-in,’ in Los Angeles, California, organized by the NAACP in collaboration with the Congress of Racial Equality. We meet renowned figures like, Maya Angelou and Alex Haley. We share the numbing affect left upon Perry when Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. was killed.
In 2012, Perry was awarded one of his most prized and unexpected honors, an ‘Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters’ awarded by the American Baptist Seminary of West Berkeley. In the fall of 2016 Perry received an ‘Honor Flight,’ a free flight and accommodations to the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. for veterans of the Second World War who had reached 90 years or older.
We learn of the impassioned moment when Perry was named, Dean of the ‘Leadership Institute’ at Allen Temple Baptist Church in 1998. “I love the man. He served Allen Temple for more than 40 years,” says Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., retired Pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church. “He affirms life.”
On August 17, 2017, Perry celebrated his 92nd birthday, and on August 16th, he and his wife Maxine celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Perry’s book can be purchased at Marcus Book Stores, 3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland, CA, Amazon.com, and Xulonpress.com.