Bob Gumbs, an Army veteran and African-American, didn’t know Cornelius H. Charlton. In fact, Gumbs wasn’t aware he existed until 2004, 53 years after Charlton’s heroic death.
Fancy Gumbs’ surprise when he and Leroy Archible, a former Marine and Bronx historian, discovered Charlton Garden – a half-acre park off E. 164th Street in Morrisania named for the Army sergeant in 1952.
Charlton served in Korea with the Army’s last all African-American regiment – dubbed the Buffalo Soldiers. A Medal of Honor recipient, he was re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery Wednesday, November 12.
“It’s a great feeling,” Gumbs said Tuesday, November 11 – Veterans Day. “His family has waited so long.”
Most Medal of Honor recipients are laid to rest at Arlington right away. It took the Army half a century to re-inter Charlton. His relatives believe race was a factor; the Army blames administrative oversight.
A West Virginia native born in 1929, Charlton moved to the Bronx in 1944. Four years later, he graduated from James Monroe High School and joined the Army.
Assigned to a desk position in Korea, Charlton volunteered for combat with the 24th Infantry Regiment. June 2, 1951, near the Korean village of Chipo-ri, his platoon commander was seriously hurt during combat. Charlton took over and led an assault of Hill 543. Hit by a grenade, he managed to kill six enemy soldiers.
Charlton then organized a second and a third assault, refusing medical attention. He disabled the enemy’s last emplacement alone, under grenade fire. Charlton succumbed to his wounds the same day. He was 21 years old.
“When my aunts talked in the kitchen,” Charlton’s niece Zenobia Penn said. “How sweetly they mentioned his name. I half-expected him to walk through the door.”
Gumbs and Archible are involved with Fordham University’s Bronx African-American History Project. On their first visit to Charlton Garden, they were disappointed to find the park in disarray. The two decided to form a society – The Friends of Charlton Garden – and to refurbish the park.
Gumbs and Archible secured funds from Councilwoman Helen D. Foster. Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. also pitched in. Community Board 3 provided support.
“We established that the park should be a true memorial,” the board’s district manager, John Dudley, said.
Work on Charlton Garden began in 2006 and is scheduled for completion in 2010. Currently, the park’s main feature is a Greek-style gazebo.
Charlton Garden will receive a new name in 2010: Charlton-Thompson Park. William Thompson, an African-American Army private from the Bronx, also earned a Medal of Honor during the Korean War.
The Friends of Charlton Garden traveled to Arlington November 8. Nearly 50 of Charlton’s relatives joined them. United Spinal Association, a non-profit founded for paralyzed veterans, rented a bus. Congressman Jose E. Serrano did too, and spoke at the ceremony.
“We can now finally say that our country has done right by Sergeant Charlton,” Serrano said. “This son of the Bronx was a true American hero who gave his life for our nation.”
Members of Charlton’s regiment also attended the re-internment.
“The turnout was very touching,” Penn said. “For me, a tsunami of emotion. None of it would have happened without The Friends of Charlton Garden. They’ll forever have my respect.”
According to Gumbs, many African-American veterans call the Bronx home. They’ve even formed a National Association for Black Veterans chapter, named for Charlton and Thompson.