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Remembering the Valley veterans from a once-segregated Mesa community

Bruce Nelson has spent years researching and compiling stories and photos from the once-segregated Washington-Escobedo Heritage District in Mesa.

MESA, Ariz. — Standing on tall easels, their pictures are blown up so it seems as though you’re able to look them right in the eye.

Their names are in large font at the top of the storyboard, and in between the photos, their stories are printed.

“If we don’t tell these stories about these guys, they’re not going to get told,” Bruce Nelson, the curator of the exhibit said.

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Nelson is the one who’s been putting their names, faces and stories together.

“All these guys, they probably should get some type of award,” Nelson said.

The veterans are all from the community in Mesa where Nelson was raised in.

“I grew up in this neighborhood so I really want to pay tribute to the men from this neighborhood,” Nelson said.

A neighborhood that’s now the Washington-Escobedo Heritage District in Mesa near University Drive and Center Street.

“Most people do not know that this was a segregated community,” Nelson said.

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The community has been home to veterans who served over the Civil War, both World Wars and beyond.

The project began with one picture from the documentary filmmaker’s own family.

“I had gotten this photograph from my uncle,” Nelson said.

It took Nelson months of asking his family to find out more.

“He’s a buffalo soldier, his mother’s a slave from Madagascar,” Nelson said. “And I was like, ‘What?! Nobody ever talked about this?”

Credit: 12 News
Nelson points out a photo his uncle gave to him that started the project to tell stories of veterans from the Washington-Escobedo Heritage District.

After more than a year of research through old records, speaking with different people in the community and more, Nelson found many families didn’t talk about the service and sacrifice either.

“I called some of the family and I’d say, ‘Hey, I understand your dad was a World War II veteran, my dad was a World War II veteran’,” Nelson said. “And they would go, ‘Yeah I think so.’ ‘Did he ever tell you about it?’ ‘Never talked about it.’ ‘Would you ask him?’  ‘We don’t ask him.’”

After all the research, about 70 Mesa veterans’ stories are shared on 50 storyboards to make up one exhibit: The Veterans of Washington-Escobedo Community.

The exhibit just wrapped up in Mesa, but Nelson said it’s next planned to go to Heritage Square in Downtown Phoenix, likely in the fall. However, dates haven’t been announced yet.

“It’s just amazing, these men came back, and you come back and you can’t sit anyplace, can’t go to a restaurant, that had to be very difficult,” Nelson said.

Nelson said it’s about sharing their stories, putting faces and names together to honor their service given.

“I think you need to remember the past so you can move into the future,” Nelson said.

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