Update: Herman Jenkins passed away the afternoon of Sept. 1, more than a week after the Polk County school Board honored him. “With sadness we learn of the passing of 104 year old, World War II Hero, Herman Jenkins,” said Polk County Veterans Council Chairman Gary Clark. “We are better because Herman walked among us.”
Lakeland’s Rochelle School of the Arts has a new name for the laboratory where its three-dimensional creations are made: The Herman Jenkins Fabrication Laboratory.
Jenkins is a 1937 graduate of Washington Park High School — an all-Black school during segregation — and a World War II veteran who stormed the beach at Normandy in the second wave on D-Day.
But many local Baby Boomers know the 104-year-old Lakeland man, who lives in a nursing home, best as a self-taught professional photographer.
“His legacy to the African American Baby Boomer generation is that of a photographer,” Rochelle Principal Carole Griffin said.
“He took many pictures of young Black kids and their new Easter outfits — I happen to be one — school pictures and pictures during the holidays for most African-American kids in Lakeland during the 1950s and 60s,” Griffin said. “Mr. Herman Jenkins was the first professional photographer that we knew.”
School Board member Kay Fields brought the matter to Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Fred Heid after the Rochelle School Advisory Council voted unanimously in May to honor Jenkins, whose wife was a longtime preschool teacher.
“One of the things that I always say is give people flowers while they can still smell them — so he’s still alive and I’m sure he’s going to be excited to know that something has been named in his honor,” Fields told her colleagues. “It is a privilege to be able to be in support of this.”
For many in the Black community, the photographs Jenkins took are treasured mementos hanging in their homes of parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents.
Jenkins and his family moved to Lakeland when he was 2-years-old and he grew up to become a part of the generation that saved the world from the Axis Powers – Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. He was drafted into the U.S. Army after the start of World War II and trained in Massachusetts and England before crossing the English Channel to liberate Europe from the Nazis.
He shared with The Ledger in 2021 that he remembered seeing the hulls of sunken military vessels in the water and a sky filled with airplanes as they approached the beach to participate in the largest military battle in the history of the world.
According to NBC News, “by the time the sun set on June 6, 1944, some 2,000 African Americans had landed in Normandy. They were engineers, stevedores, and gunners. They carried the wounded to safety and buried the dead. They drove ambulances, earth-movers and the trucks that would supply the front lines. Black quartermasters won praise from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for salvaging their trucks sunk in deep water — and saving significant quantities of blood plasma and medical supplies that would save lives on Omaha Beach.”
Jenkins and the men of his segregated unit — the 3123rd Quartermaster Service Company — marched through a series of villages in France as they made their way to Cherbourg.
“I don’t remember the names of those small towns that we went through,” he told The Ledger. “They had all been bombed. Some of them had been bombed completely down.”
He and his fellow soldiers were assigned to guard supply depots in Cherbourg and then German prisoners of war.
“I think they were glad to be in there because if they had been out dodging bullets, getting killed, they thought it was better to be in there,” said Jenkins, who was a corporal.
He also said they had to fight off Germans parachuting into the area, although none tried to free the prisoners.
Jenkins was on a ship headed to New York and was set to transfer to the Pacific theater when they got word that the war was over. He said a band got on the ship’s stage and started playing music as the men celebrated.
He returned home to care for his family after his father, who worked at the rail yard where Bonnet Springs Park is now located, became sick.
After the war, Jenkins got a job selling women’s clothes to Lakeland’s white and Black communities. But he was intrigued by taking pictures and eventually bought his own equipment and became a self-taught professional photographer — the first Black professional photographer in Lakeland.
Photography then wasn’t what it is now, with everyone having a camera on their telephones. Then, cameras were bulky, boxlike structures or rectangular metal devices with interchangeable lenses. Photographers used film, which had to be shipped off for development or developed using chemicals in a dark room lit only by a red bulb. Otherwise, the photo paper would be damaged by light.
“I recall when I was about like five or six years old and I was at his house on one occasion and he was building a dark room. I said, ‘Uncle Herman, why are you building a dark room when we have light in the house already?’” his nephew, Reggie Jenkins, told the School Board at their meeting Tuesday. “He showed me just tons of film that he had goofed up on. But he taught himself through a type of encyclopedia to actually build a dark room and develop film, to take photos of people of color back during the 50s and 60s.”
Reggie Jenkins, a pharmacist, said he is honored to accept any declaration and share it with his uncle this weekend.
Herman Jenkins took the Flight to Honor in 2022, telling News Channel 8 he was glad to be able to finally see the WWII monument.
Jenkins’ influence spread to the Lakeland Police Department. When one of LPD’s first Black police officers, Edgar Pickett, was shot investigating a domestic violence incident at the J.M. Fields store in the early 1970s, Pickett decided he wanted to switch to forensic work. He turned to Jenkins, his longtime friend, to teach him the art of photography and developing his own film. The forensics lab at the police department is named for Pickett.
NAACP Lakeland President Terry Coney said it is important to remember Jenkins and men like him.
“His stories are important for the young people,” Coney said. “People in my generation knew him, but I don’t think many kids know about self-made men, self-taught men anymore because, you know, they’re pushed now — you go to college, you go to trade school.”
Coney, who grew up in Lakeland and was in one of the last graduating classes of Rochelle High School, said he and his friends never knew Jenkins was in WWII. Like so many other men who fought in the last world war, he never talked about it. And, Coney, added, many young people don’t realize that Black men bravely fought in WWII.
“A lot of that history is – even people of my generation don’t know a whole lot about it. So especially when you get into Generation X to Millennials and Gen Z, they don’t have a clue,” Coney said. “It’s just another way of putting someone out in front of young people, a person that looks like them, that they can feel proud of.”
Jenkins hung up his camera and closed his dark room long ago. When he reflected on the segregated Army in 2021, he said he didn’t dwell on that or the discrimination and racial hatred in the United States when he was fighting in Europe.
“When you grow up like that, you just go on and figure one day it would change — and it did,” Jenkins said.
The vote on Tuesday night was unanimous to honor Jenkins. Their next vote was to do away with all proclamations.
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