As pedestrians and motorists pass the intersection of Bayview Avenue and Thomas Court in Inwood a remembrance of a community native can be seen and possibly be a conversation-starter on race relations and patriotic duty as a street sign was dedicated to Sgt. Jeff Burns Sr., a World War II military veteran who was a member of the 761st Tank Battalion, one of three black units established when the U.S. Armed Forces was segregated.
The Dec. 2 ceremony also included a surprise mini-parade and a commemorative service at St. John Baptist Church, at 4 Henry St., also in Inwood. The parade included a World War II-style tank and vehicles from the Town of Hempstead, Atlantic Beach Rescue and the Inwood and Lawrence-Cedarhurst fire departments. The tank was from the Museum of American Armor in Bethpage.
Town Councilman Bruce Blakeman connected his family’s history of military service in WWII — his father, Robert, served in the U.S. Merchant Marines in the North Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean theaters and his mother, Betty, was a stateside Army surgical technician — with that of Burns Sr. “My mother didn’t want to be left out of a good fight,” Blakeman said. “And she would have liked the tank battalion’s motto ‘come out fighting.’”
Burns Sr. served in the unit that was also known as the Black Panthers, the 761st Tank Battalion was under the command of Gen. George Patton. The two other black tank battalions were the 758th and the 784th. Eight members of the 761st were awarded battlefield commissions, 391 received decorations for heroism, including 245 Purple Hearts for valor, seven Silver Stars and 56 Bronze Stars. The damage inflicted upon the enemy totaled 130,000 casualties as they stormed across Europe.
“This is a long time coming, I’ve been consistent with this since kindergarten,” said Burns, 67, “My father was a perfect role model.” The Burns family was originally from Georgia and moved to Florida looking for work. Burns Sr. settled in Inwood in 1938. He died in 1988.
Blakeman and County Legislator Carrié Solages, who both represent Inwood, noted that the street dedication was part of righting the wrongs of segregation and prejudice. “We pay tribute to this man’s family,” Solages said, “and let this sign be a reminder to all boys and girls that you can accomplish anything in this great country.”
A skilled tailor, Burn Sr. became the head tailor for Bonwit Teller department store in Manhattan and owned a dry-cleaning business in Lynbrook. “We cannot forget to learn from our mistakes, so we don’t repeat them in the future,” said Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, referencing the prejudice endured by black Americans and many others. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) supported the street dedication with a letter to the town. State Assemblywoman Melissa Miller (R-Atlantic Beach) attended the Sunday event.
The 761st was awarded the President Unit Citation by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and 20 years later Burns Sr. was listed on the Roll of Honor at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow. He has also been nominated posthumously for a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor by U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks, who also represents Inwood.
“Sergeant Jeff Burns fought for his country even when it segregated him and his black brothers-in-arms from the rest of our armed forces,” Meeks wrote in an email. “He served his country in times of war, and his community in times of peace. It is precisely his kind of character and patriotism that street renamings should venerate.”