BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Col. Otho van Exel fought in World War II, commanded four times and was one of the first African-Americans to attend the Army War College.
But it was his character in the face of discrimination, with the backing of the New York National Guard, which had him in the headlines in April 1964, as the Civil Rights struggle of the time was nearing its climax.
Van Exel, an immigrant from Barbados, was a student at the City College of New York and working as a post office laborer, according to his National Guard record card, when he enlisted in the New York National Guard's 369th Coast Artillery Regiment as a corporal in 1937 at age 21.
Joining the 369th then was a big deal. A member of the unit had to sponsor the recruit and vouch for their good character.
During World War I, the 369th Infantry Regiment became famous as the Harlem Hell Fighters. In 1921 it was reorganized into a Coastal Artillery unit responsible for manning batteries of massive guns defending against naval raids on the seacoasts of the United States.
By 1940, when the New York National Guard mobilized as part of the country's response to Germany's conquest of France, the Brooklyn resident was an officer and deployed to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, as communications officer for the 369th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment.
When the 369th deployed to the Pacific in 1942—where it was the first all-black unit in Hawaii—van Exel served as intelligence officer and then logistics officer.
After the war, he served as assistant operations officer and operations officer in two different New York National Guard battalions. In 1951 he assumed command of the 771st Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, and led that unit until 1955 when he commanded the 715th Field Artillery Battalion.
Then in 1957 it was back to the 369th, now reconfigured as an Artillery Group – an artillery higher headquarters—to command in that unit from 1957 to 1959.
His leadership responsibilities continued into the 1960s when he took command of the 187th Artillery Group. In that role he led troops training at Fort Drum as the Berlin Crisis bubbled and National Guard and Army Reserve units were called up for long-term duty.
Van Exel, a traditional Guardsman, graduated from the Army War College in 1963. He was one of two black officers attending the War College that year, the first ever. In his yearbook entry, it notes that he had a special interest in amphibious warfare and military operational planning.
Van Exel became a bit player in the larger Civil Rights struggle in April of 1964, when he was one of 17 officers attending the annual meeting of the Adjutant General's Association in New Orleans.
The group was to meet at the Roosevelt Hotel, a major tourist hotel in the city's famous French Quarter.
But the Roosevelt Hotel owner, Seymour Weiss, was still practicing segregation. His hotel staff would not let van Exel check in when the delegation arrived on April 26. There may have been civil rights legislation pending that would require him to cater to African Americans, but until it actually became law, he wasn't changing his policy, Weiss told the newspapers.
Col. van Exel could attend the conference, the New Yorkers were told, but the decorated Army National Guard officer could not stay in the hotel, no matter what. That was unacceptable for the New Yorkers.
"Discrimination at its best is bad thing," Maj. Gen. A.C. O'Hara, the adjutant general of New York told the press. "But it certainly is even more undesirable when the discrimination is against an officer in uniform who is ready to fight for his country and for the people who are discriminating against him."
The New York delegation packed its bags on the orders of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and went home. So did the 10-member delegation from Puerto Rico.
Upon learning of the incident, the Department of Defense ordered the 35 active Army and Air Force officers who were supposed to take part in the meeting out of the segregated hotel. The meeting was moved to Camp Leroy Johnson, an Army post in New Orleans instead.
The story made national headlines.
Back home in New York, van Exel, a postal supervisor at Kennedy Internal Airport, told the Associated Press that there wasn't anything unusual about his treatment in New Orleans. He had served at several Army bases where he had faced discrimination, van Exel said.
He felt "more sorry for the people down south than I do for myself," van Exel told United Press International at the time.
Four months later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took effect, making it illegal for any hotel to refuse service to anybody because of their race.
Van Exel continued his service in the New York Army National Guard until 1971. His last assignment was leading an 11-man detachment responsible for recruiting more African-American citizens and other minority members into the New York Army National Guard.
Upon his retirement in 1971 he received a brevet promotion—an honorary appointment—to the rank of brigadier general, recognizing his years of service to the United States and New York state.
He died in 1975, having witnessed firsthand the segregated military force that he joined transformed onto a path that led to an Army that today recognizes the contributions of nearly every race, creed, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
(Editor's note: Thanks to Army War College Professor Charles Allen for bringing the story of Col. Otho van Exel to our attention)