Love story revealed in letters

Monday, April 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Olivia Merriwether and Inman Perkins met, fell in love and wed at the outset of World War II. But two things separated their short-lived romance from most.

The couple had to hide their marriage from the bride's employer, the St. Louis School District. And, for nearly 60 years the story of their relationship remained stuffed in a suitcase.

That is, until former St. Louisan Jeffrey Copeland happened upon the suitcase at a Belleville, Ill., flea market in 2002.

Copeland, chairman of the English Department at the University of Northern Iowa, found stuffed inside 150 letters the couple had written each other, postmarked between 1942-44.

Copeland wrote "Inman's War: A Soldier's Life in a Colored Battalion in World War II," in 2006. A production company recently exercised an option to convert the chronicle of love and armed conflict into a feature film, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Merriwether, who grew up in St. Louis, taught science at Sumner High School.

Perkins, originally from Macon, Mo., arrived at the school a year later. The two married but hid their relationship from a school system that didn't allow female teachers who married to remain on the job.

The policy was enforced from 1881 until 1948.

"I don't know when this will get to you," Merriwether wrote in one letter. "No matter when it does, know that my love will already be that much greater than when it was written. You are so deep in my heart. So deep. Above all remember this: I love you with all my heart -- now and forever."

Inman was sent to the Italian theater where his unit was segregated from the white units.

Drawing heavily on Perkins' letters, Copeland constructed a nonfiction narrative that recreates the black experience during World War II.

"I was taught by both [parents] that, generally, we were more alike than different," Inman wrote in one letter. "And this, according to my parents, was especially true in the area of race. I was also taught that both beauty and deed were not just skin-deep; rather, both had roots that ran all the way to the core of our souls. Differences, my parents said, were created by men, not inherently in men."

Copeland traveled the Midwest and South to interview the dwindling numbers of relatives who remembered the couple.

His reporting took him to Anzio, Italy, where thousands of American servicemen were buried after a four-month battle for the Italian peninsula in 1944.

Perkins survived Anzio.

But on a supply run on June 17, 1944, Perkins was near a fuel depot when lightning struck.

He died in the explosion.

Merriwether remained at Sumner an additional 40 years and died in 1997.

Sumner graduate Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist, penned the foreword to Copeland's book.

"Inman's War is on one level an ugly story about America and racism and prejudice and discrimination and sexism. But it is also a human story, a story about real people, a story of friendship and loyalty, a story of the human spirit as it tries to overcome adversity," Gregory wrote.

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