Leroy Mudd opened a letter from his son on July 1, 1970, in which his son confessed to using drugs as a teen. The 20-year-old then explained to his father that his experiences in the two months since he had arrived in Vietnam had made him realize he needed a new direction for his life that would include college and a career when he came home from the war.
That same day, a Western Union telegraph arrived at the Mudd's West Mifflin home, notifying the family that their son was missing in action. Six days later, his family received another telegram stating that Navy Seaman Leroy Bernard Mudd had died of an accidental drowning in Vietnam.
The letter and telegrams are part of a new exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center -- "Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era," which opens today, Veteran's Day. Seaman Mudd is among 58 names listed on a re-creation of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall in the center. The names on this wall are those of black soldiers from Allegheny County killed in the war. The list of names will grow as black soldiers' casualties from other counties in southwestern Pennsylvania are collected.
The re-creation of the memorial wall will lead History Center visitors into the most comprehensive exhibition to ever explore the issues of the Vietnam War from an African-American perspective,
"I've always been conscious of the fact that popular culture, and especially the media, does not portray the experiences of African- Americans, particularly in the military," says Michael Flournoy, a counselor at the Veterans Resource Center, in McKeesport, who served as an Army staff sergeant in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.
The Soul Soldier exhibit features authentic artifacts, including military equipment, uniforms, medals, publications, letters sent home, journals, poetry, fine art and songs. It tells the story of the impact of the Vietnam War on African-American life and culture by examining both the war and the civil rights movement.
"The exhibit is interesting because of the wealth of Vietnam veterans in this community who have been able to share this story," says Samuel W. Black, curator of the History Center's African American Collection.
In talking with more than 50 black Vietnam War veterans from across the country, Black collected more than 200 artifacts for the exhibit. During the first year he spent researching the exhibit, the only artifact he had was a photograph of his brother, Private First Class Jimmy McNeil, who served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967. McNeil was 16 years older than Black, and died after the war when Black was 10 years old. "As we let the story kind of evolve, the various themes of the soldiers' experiences began to develop," says Black.
Some veterans, such as Steve Price, were drafted right after high school. Price graduated in 1966 from Westinghouse High School, in Pittsburgh. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1967 to 1972 as a para-jumper who rescued injured pilots.
"It changed me from being the young school kid to knowing I'm …