top of page

I Had to Be The Best I Could Be

Lisa Helm



After 9/11 Yvonne Latty, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, began researching a story that would take her a year and a half to finish. It wasn’t a piece for the paper: her notes were forming a book, “We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans,” a collection of interviews with 29 black vets who have served in conflicts from World War II through the war on terror.

“Thank God for the internet,” says Latty, who traced leads, in part, from online news stories. “Every once in a while I’d find a little gem and then go on ahead.” In late May, Latty’s book became an exhibit at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center; accompanying excerpts from her interviews are the volume’s black-and-white shots of vets taken by Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Ron Tarver. (Organizers are planning a national tour.)
Latty says her interest in the project stems from her late father, Albert, a Navy steward in World War II. He filled her childhood in New York City’s Harlem with tales of war. They weren’t all easy to hear. “He would tell me about the racism and discrimination,” says Latty. “But every story always ended with him saying how proud he was to serve his country.”
That sentiment is echoed in the thoughts of older vets, who often fought for a country that wasn’t fighting for them. “I didn’t have time to let the problems, the racism, defeat me,” reads the testimonial of Samuel Gravely Jr., who started in a segregated Navy cleaning sailors’ barracks during WWII. “All I knew was that I had to be the best I could be.” Gravely became the Navy's first black admiral in 1971.
Tarver says he was trying to capture the personalities behind the uniforms. He says of the exhibit: “I wasn’t prepared for how moved people were by it. People would just stand there and cry.”

bottom of page