Local veterans’ nonprofit aims to preserve African American military history

Local veterans' nonprofit aims to preserve African American military history
Photo contributed.

By Mike Kinney

A Richmond native’s appearance in Glory, the 1989 film about the Civil War’s first all-Black volunteer company, was the catalyst behind the formation that same year of the Hercules-based nonprofit, The Walking Ghosts of Black History, which works to support active and veteran military members and to help preserve African American military history, education and culture. 

Kennedy High alum Leon Watkins was cast as the flag bearer for the national colors for the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in Glory. When the film’s producer, Freddie Fields, learned about Watkins’ commitment to preserving African American military history, he contributed 20 Civil War uniforms used in the movie to help launch The Walking Ghosts of Black History.

Co-founded by Watkins and Larry Thompson, the nonprofit organization serves to provide the public with reliable, comprehensive information about the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans in the history of the United States military. The organization currently has a display onboard the SS Red Oak Victory Ship in Richmond in honor of Juneteenth that documents the history of African American soldiers in the Civil War.

Local veterans' nonprofit aims to preserve African American military history
Photo contributed.

“Our goal with our exhibit, of Juneteenth, is not only to show the celebration in commemoration, but background on the Civil War, including its leaders both Union and Confederate, the Mason-Dixon line, Confederate and Union states and neutral states, the Emancipation Proclamation, points on Juneteenth and the reconstruction era, including the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments,” Watkins said. “It not only points of interest of the African American involvement towards the end of the Civil War, but their fate afterwards, and with visuals to show the views of that time in our nation’s history, basically the thought process of the 1800s.”

The nonprofit’s cofounders are themselves veterans. After graduating from Kennedy High, Watkins joined the U.S. Marine Corps and became an official Marine Corps photographer for several years, at one point photographing U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Watkins is also a recent college graduate, having earned an Associates degree in Communications Studies at Contra Costa College in 2019 and a Bachelor’s degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communications Arts from San Francisco State University in 2022.

Thompson, also a Richmond native, joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from Pinole Valley High and served for 10 years. He became an official storekeeper/helmsman for four years while aboard the USS Reclaimer (ARS – 42). During his years in the US Navy, he was honored with various awards and certificates and the Navy Commendation Metal while serving at Matcu Travis Air Force Base in California. After leaving Travis Air Force Base, he served for 26 months in Alameda on The USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). 

After completing his military service, Thompson began pursuing a career in Film and Video with Watkins. In addition to founding their nonprofit, Watkins also started and serves as chief executive of Capricorn One Productions.

The pair have big plans for The Walking Ghosts Of Black History. Its most significant goal is to build a museum to honor the 320 sailors and civilians, primarily African Americans, who were killed there by an explosion resulting from white officers’ gross safety violations in 1944. For the last seven years, The Walking Ghosts Of Black History has supported the retelling of this devastating and critical history, in part with displays at various locations such as the USS Hornet in Alameda.

 “We want to have a [permanent] exhibit on the USS Red Oak Victory Ship and from that obtain a brick-and-mortar location with support from the United States Navy,” Watkins said, adding that the museum would serve as an important outlet to remember sailors and civilians of the Port Chicago Naval magazine whose lives were lost in 1944.

“We are attempting to spread the word to the world of the contribution of African American male and females that served in the United States Armed Forces from the conception of the United States to modern day and beyond,” Watkins said.

For more information on The Walking Ghosts of Black History, contact Leon Watkins at (510) 334-0033 or visit the nonprofit’s website here.