Corona co-op to honor first black man to win Navy Cross

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The first black man to win the Navy Cross was born in Waco, Texas, and probably never set foot in Queens. And yet the figure of Doris “Dorie” Miller looms large on black history in the borough.

The co-op buildings in Corona that bear his name became a haven for jazz greats and remain a hub of African-American culture in the neighborhood.

Now, as the U.S. Postal Service unveils a stamp commemorating Miller’s achievement, the co-op council is preparing to celebrate the man whose face graces a brass plaque in front of their homes.

“We are doing this to pass it on to our children and our children’s children, so they will be aware of the history, where they have come from and what we have already done,” said Carolyn Carter-Kennedy, who organized a trip to Washington, D.C., for the official stamp unveiling.

Miller was a cook aboard the battleship USS West Virginia when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. He helped his captain and several of his shipmates to safety before manning a machine gun turret against the attacking planes despite his lack of training.

Miller was killed in action in 1943, but he was honored with a number of tributes, including a Navy warship and the co-ops, which were completed in 1953 and named after Miller by the influential black U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

The complex of six, seven-story towers is home to 300 families.

“It’s just a great big happy family and everybody in the building looks out for one another,” said Emma Fulwood, 80, one of the original residents.

Resident Yvonne Lambie, 80, an avid stamp collector, found out about the Miller stamp from a contact in the stamp business and the co-op’s council soon formed a group to attend the ceremony.

“The minute I heard Dorie Miller, I’m the kind that gets excited about things,” she said.

But the group decided they needed to bring the celebration back to their home, so they organized a celebration from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday that includes a visit from the mobile post office and a dedication ceremony.

“People will come out, get the stamp, be involved, bring their children and absolutely learn about this great legacy,” Carter-Kennedy said.

With a legacy that includes jazz greats like alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, his brother Nat, trumpeter Clark Terry and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath amog the residents, the complex’s summer gatherings over the years were serenaded from the fire escapes with the distinctive hard bop sensibilities of these musicians.

“We were recording together during that time and Clark, and the Adderleys, we were all on Riverside Records,” said Heath, who moved into the complex in 1964 and has lived there ever since. “We had a great camaraderie.”

Lambie recalls her friendship with Cannonball Adderley, whose nickname was a mispronunciation of “cannibal,” due to his large appetite.

“Cannonball Adderley was like me, wide-bodied,” she said. “We liked to eat. And I liked to cook. And I remember, he used to come over to my house to get rice and peas and fried chicken a lot. And one day he says, ‘%u2026 Lambie, I have to bring a friend over because I told him about your food.’ And that friend happened to be Bill Cosby.”

But while the Adderleys have died and Terry has moved elsewhere, Heath is still happy to be the neighborhood’s resident jazz eminence.

“Like Louis Armstrong, he loved those cats around there, I love these cats here in Dorie Miller,” he said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 6:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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