Behind the Peoria County Courthouse, there are statues that represent the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
For the former, the man represents a turning point in America’s military. He stands tall, proud, ready to serve.
He is black.
“My family, we wanted to be contributing Americans,” said Preston Jackson, the Peoria artist who crafted the sculpture.
The statue is modeled off of Jackson’s brother, Laudell, who served in America’s first attempt at desegregated conflict.
Laudell was one of an estimated 600,000 African Americans to do so, during a time when racial tensions in America were high.
“He had to go fight a war for a place that did not allow him to…you know, flourish,” recalled Jackson. “To be in college, or do things like that.”
This would continue into the Vietnam War, when the armed forces were fully integrated.
Though the war came with plenty of protests, in the war zone, Peoria veteran Lance Corporal Prentice Wadley says race wasn’t one of them.
“The guys I served with, I loved them, they loved me,” he said. “We fought together. But as far as discrimination within Vietnam, I really didn’t see a lot of it.”
Wadley shared stories of his comrades-in-arms, showing off his collection of Vietnam and Marine Corps memorabilia.
He said when it came to combat, it didn’t matter the color of one’s skin.
That sentiment was echoed by Radioman Third-Class Ralph Reynolds.
“There’s something about that brotherhood…that (race) is the furthest thing from your mind. Like, what color this guy is next to me. What political party he belongs to. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
What matters instead, both Wadley and Reynolds said, was proper recognition for the sacrifices they and veterans like them endured.
Reynold’s son, Chris, works for Bradley University and has made it a point at every home game to honor a veteran.
“When we recognize the living, and we walk them out to center court, I also think about those that made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Chris Reynolds.
“What I’m most looking forward to is when we go to Washington D.C. and visit those we won’t be able to walk out to center court, because they gave everything.”
Both Reynolds’ will be going on an upcoming Honor Flight to Washington D.C.
They, like Wadley who went in 2018, are more excited about the welcome home they’ll receive than anything else.
“I say, ‘Finally, at last,’ You get what you have coming, you get what you’ve earned,” elaborated Ralph Reynolds. “These people, I’m in the crowd. They see the crowd, they’re sincere about their gratitude…it’s emotional.”
“Support your veterans, no matter the color of their skin,” quipped Wadley. “If they need help, try to help them out. As much as you can, they deserve it.”
Today, race is still an issue our country works to overcome.
Reminding people of the past – of his brother – is why Preston Jackson keeps making his art: to heal, and reflect.
“Unfortunately today, as we speak, we have gone backwards,” Jackson said, gazing off in thought. “Dangerously backwards.”
When asked how to move forward, Jackson smiled.
“All you have to do is just look someone in the eye who don’t look like you. And then realize, they are you.”