It is June 1941. FORGOTTEN opens on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Wilson Caldwell Monk is waiting tables at Heilig’s Restaurant, serving up platters of fresh lobster and stewed snapper to an endless parade of visitors. Monk and waiters like him are mostly African American. They are the descendants of southern migrants whose muscle and know-how helped build barren Absecon Island into America’s premier resort. As the nation inched toward another world war, black workers in Atlantic City were no longer welcome to share in the spoils of their labor. Amusement rides that were once open to all were now “whites only.” Segregation extended off the Boardwalk, with black families sidelined to a patch of sand that came to be known as “Chicken Bone Beach.”
When the draft letter came in the mail, Wilson Monk, 21 years old, saw an opportunity. It was a chance to land a secure job with decent pay. For the 12 months — he expected it to be a one-year commitment — he would serve in the U.S. Army, Monk wouldn’t have to worry about a paycheck. It would be a welcome reprieve. During "The Season,” the three months Atlantic City was open for business, Monk held down as many jobs as he could squeeze into a day. He mopped floors, delivered packages, sold salt water taffy and, of course, waited tables at fine restaurants that would never serve a meal to a black man like himself.
When the United States went to war in December 1941, Monk’s service was extended indefinitely. He would travel to Great Britain, where he would meet people like Jessie Prior, who taught him that segregation was not a natural state. Jessie was a devout Welsh woman living in a village called Abersychan. Jessie’s only child, 18-year-old Keith, was off at war. She would become a second mother to Wilson and her correspondence with his mother, Rosita, in New Jersey would continue for years after the young American with soft brown eyes and genteel manners left for the battlefields of France with his unit, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion.
Before his arrival in Britain, Wilson Monk had never counted a white person as a friend. During his years training at an Army base in northwestern Tennessee, he had endured brutal racism. Despite his crisp Army uniform and sergeant stripes, his place on a train was in the “Negro car” hard by the dirty coal engine. He was denied a table in restaurants where German prisoners of war interned in America were welcome.
“Mrs. Monk, you have a son to treasure, and feel very proud of,” Jessie Prior wrote to Rosita Monk on May 3, 1944. “We love him very dearly, and will do anything in the world for him. … We have told him he can look upon our home as his home while in our country, and I will try to fill your place, if only in a small way … we shall look upon him now as our own.”
Read more about Wilson Monk in Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War, which goes on sale today. Click here to order.
To see more photos of Wilson Monk, click here.
To read more about Jessie Prior, click here.