AT REST, AT LAST
The Hartford Courant
November 13, 2008
ARLINGTON, Va. — Zenobia Penn's uncle is
done with his traveling. And her family has learned
that sometimes you have to bury a man three times
before it's done right.
Penn's Uncle Connie is better known to some by
the name on his Medal of Honor citation: Sgt.
Cornelius H. Charlton. Now that name will be
carved into one of the white stones on the green
half a century after the family said racism turned
the soldier away from this resting place of many of
the country's honored heroes.
It's bittersweet, this victory. The family finally
gets to see its own Korean War hero put in the
place they always thought he should be. But it
took so long, a 56-year wait, ended by a little
administrative tenacity by Penn, who lives in New
Penn, the daughter of Charlton's older sister Fairy
Mae Papadopoulos, never knew her uncle. She was
a month shy of being born when Charlton was
killed taking Hill 549 near the village of Chipo-ri.
But she knew his story, the one told around
kitchen tables as far back as she can remember. The
family's honest-to-goodness hero, awarded the
country's highest military honor, handed to his
folks by President Harry Truman.
Charlton had been a 21-year-old sergeant, a
voluntary member of a front-line unit - the 24th
Infantry Regiment, the last all-black segregated
unit, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. During a hill
assault, when his platoon officer was wounded,
Charlton took over, charging enemy positions,
refusing attention for his wounds until he cleared
the last of the heavy resistance. He died from
multiple wounds, earning the description on his
medal citation: "indomitable courage, superb
leadership and gallant self-sacrifice."
And then there was the story's persistent shadow:
When they were set to bury Charlton, the family
stories say, some racists - not the staff at Arlington
- turned the black family around before they had
their turn at the busy national cemetery. So,
Charlton was taken to a cemetery in West Virginia,
where the family had come from before its
migration to New York (and Connecticut) and
where some of the family was buried. They put
him there, under a small marker.
"He was a hero buried in some remote hole
somewhere in West Virginia," Penn said.
It was only when the Congressional Medal of
Honor Society went hunting for lost recipients that
his grave was rediscovered in the overgrown,
abandoned cemetery. He was moved years ago to a
more prominent American Legion cemetery for
veterans, still in West Virginia. But some in the
family wanted more for him.
Penn, now 57, remembered her childhood days,
trying to explain to schoolmates that her uncle was
a hero. "The children told me I was lying because
there was no such thing as a black hero," she said.
In recent years, the military, sticking to its
tradition, had named things for Charlton: a barracks
in South Korea and a Navy cargo ship, the USNS
Charlton, which Papadopoulos helped launch in
1999 as a co-sponsor. There's a bridge named for
him in West Virginia and a park in the Bronx,
where he enlisted in the Army and where much of
his family lives today. Still, Charlton hadn't made it
to the fields at Arlington.
Then Penn's own young grandchild, who has light
skin, had her own racial encounter with classmates.
"Her friends told her that she didn't have to listen
to me, because she was white and I wasn't," Penn
said. It brought it all back for Penn, who wanted to
prove once and for all that Uncle Connie's heroics
were a legacy her family could be proud of. "That
was it. That was the beginning."
But it wasn't something that everybody in the
family was comfortable remembering.
"You couldn't even bring up his name without
somebody getting ticked off about stuff," Penn
said. And when she made progress, especially
when Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-2nd District,
agreed to deal with the Department of Defense,
there was still a hesitance in the family. "The
attitude was: We'll see. I'll believe it when I see it,"
Penn said. "There wasn't much hope left at this
point, after 56 years."
They saw it on Wednesday. Charlton was buried in
section 40, surrounded by dozens of family
members, and even some surviving members of the
24th. There were honors. Men in crisp dress
uniforms folded a flag with slow precision and
handed it to Papadopoulos. A bugle was played
and guns saluted.
Courtney told the crowd that "a person can get lost
in the cogs of the machine - even a hero."
Penn and those who helped her were able to - as
she put it - "right a 56-year-old wrong." But when
asked what it all meant to her, she gave up on
trying to find the right words. "It's a lot," she said.
"I'm just going to embrace it."
There were a few new tears at the graveside, but
also a lot of laughter. This wasn't really another
farewell to Charlton. It was, finally, his