POWNAL, Vt. - It's an odd place for a black history museum: a 19th-century schoolhouse in a quiet corner of the state with the country's smallest African-American population.
But that's partly why it is here. Bruce Bird, a retired factory worker, founded the Museum of Black World War II History in June 2006 after deciding that it was time for his village - and the nation - to recognize the contributions that black servicemen and women made in World War II.
Its two rooms are filled with weapons, models, and photographs, including Bird's own collection of vintage artillery shells and memorabilia. You learn about little-known heroes like Dorie Miller, a mess attendant who was on the battleship West Virginia in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. Told to go below deck, he refused, staying above to pull wounded shipmates to safety and then shooting down at least two Japanese planes with weapons he hadn't been trained to use. For his actions, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for bravery.
Like Miller, most of the US military's 1.1 million blacks were relegated to support roles by a racist system that viewed them with suspicion. Bird, 65, says he gets about one visitor a day. He has sold his house to keep the museum going, living upstairs and doing all the maintenance, outreach, and exhibit design himself. "I've retired to the museum instead of from it," he jokes. "I'm not leaving."
Increasingly, word is getting out. A Web designer, Raven Crone, saw a write-up about the museum in a local paper and donated a website. Two World War II pickup trucks arrived as gifts. When the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded in March to the famous Tuskegee Airmen, Bird was invited to attend, and one of them, Clarence Dart, agreed to come and speak. A schedule of lectures and events is gradually taking shape.
What keeps him going?
"Eight years ago, I didn't know there was a black military history in World War II," Bird said. "So when you find out there was, it's sort of a rude awakening."
Though not a veteran himself, he is a dedicated World War II buff. And his discoveries of the histories of African-American servicemen and women have opened up a new field of study for him. "It's all new to me," he said. "I'm having a ball." He is driven, too, by who he is - a Vermonter. Slavery was banned here in 1777, he noted, 14 years before Vermont became a state.
"If you were a black [in World War II]," Bird said, "you couldn't go to the officers club, but if you were a German POW, you could go. As a Vermonter, that is just totally disgusting."
Diane E. Foulds, a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.