This profile is the first in a yearlong series titled The Root's Salute to Unsung Heroes, which will put a weekly spotlight on African Americans who have been recognized by the Corporation for National and Community Service as Drum Majors for Service. The inspiration for the honor is the spirit of community service that Martin Luther King Jr. described in his 1968 sermon "The Drum Major Instinct."
At 88, retired Chicago transit worker and ex-Marine Theodore Peters sometimes wonders if he's getting too old for all the demanding volunteer work he does.
The thought comes up while he's telling you about some of the things he's involved with at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where he's a deacon. Let's see — there's the program to help out the neighborhood elderly, whether it's shoveling snow in front of their houses ("I stopped doing that myself about two years ago") or just knocking on their doors to see if they're warm enough on really cold days.
"There's five or six of us who work together in the inner core," says Peters, whose volunteer work prompted the White House to designate him as one of more than 1,000 recipients of the government's MLK Drum Major for Service Awards. "If somebody's gas is cut off, we can take care of that. We go down to the gas or light company and pay the bill for them."
Then there's the church food basket, with monthly deliveries from a centralized Chicago food bank so the needy can pick up supplies at the West Side church. And also emergency supplies, which volunteers hand out to people whose homes are damaged by fire or who might be experiencing power outages or other family catastrophes. All of this comes under Peters' bailiwick as chairman of the church's trustee ministry and member of the men's ministry.
And that's not even mentioning the work he does as a leader of the Montford Point Marine Association chapter, what with Toys for Tots and Christmas food baskets for the poor ("First-class food with all the trimmings"). Plus, don't forget Peters' involvement in the long, hard campaign to gain official recognition for the heroic efforts of black U.S. Marines during World War II.
This last, of course, culminated last November, when President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding the Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal, raising the veterans group to the status of the buffalo soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen.
So that's a lot of volunteering. "I might be getting too old for all of this daily volunteering," he says. "But maybe not."
Why does he do it? "Have you ever done something for someone who really needed it?" he asks. "You know how you feel after that? That's the way God blesses you, giving you that good feeling. That's the way you get your reward."
Peters was born in 1923 in Mississippi, where he learned up close about Jim Crow and the legacy of the Civil War. "I met people who were in slavery time," he recalls, "telling us what happened when four or five brothers and sisters were stolen away, and knowing they might never see them again."
When Peters was 10, his family followed the early 20th century's Great Migration, in which blacks moved en masse "up the river to Chicago." He went to public schools in the big city, then got drafted in the midst of the war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just signed Executive Order 8802, ordering that the color ban be removed from all of the military services, including the Marines. Peters was one of the first to be accepted.
Those early black Marines weren't sent to boot camp with the whites in South Carolina or San Diego but were relegated to a sandy, mosquito-riddled corner at Camp Lejeune, N.C., called Montford Point. "They tried to discourage us and make us more or less fail," Peters recalls. But insults and poor treatment from white superiors just made the black Marines more determined, he says. Peters trained as an anti-aircraft gunner there, then got shipped to the South Pacific.
He saw no combat, though his unit was assigned to a series of island encampments. "The explanation was that, after the Battle of Midway, the Navy ruled the skies," Peters says. "We were in an anti-aircraft outfit, and we were ready for combat. But as far as they were concerned, we were obsolete in the Pacific."
Giving his military experience a final bitter punctuation, when his ship home disembarked at Norfolk, Va., on a bitterly cold day, the Red Cross denied him food service because of his color.
"I got off the ship and heard someone say the Red Cross was serving coffee and doughnuts," Peters says. "We all ran down there, and guess what? The Red Cross said, no, this is just for the white guys."
The Congressional Gold Medal at last recognizes the 20,000 black Marines who came through the segregated boot camp at Montford Point, some of them going on to give their lives at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in Japan. Peters, the chaplain of his chapter of the Montford Point veterans organization, was deeply involved in the effort to bring recognition to these Marines, organizing fellow Marine veterans to participate in letter-writing and email campaigns.
Back in Chicago after the war, Peters went to work for the Chicago Transit Authority as a bus driver. He retired in 1986, becoming the exemplary volunteer that he is today. His wife of 65 years, Mary, died two months ago at 84. "God let me keep her all those years, and I'm thankful for that," he says.
No, he's not ready to give up the work, even though he'll be 89 in April. "I'm in good health," he says. "No high blood pressure, no diabetes, though my cholesterol could be a little lower."
Besides, he's got plans. New plans, bigger programs. "This year we want to do more than just the Christmas basket," he says. "This year we're going to do Christmas in July."
Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.