It never ceases to amaze me the number of outstanding musicians and others who have made giant contributions to the African American history in Denison. Many still are living. Friday is the last day of Black History Month and today’s column will talk about several more who fit that category.

It never ceases to amaze me the number of outstanding musicians and others who have made giant contributions to the African American history in Denison. Many still are living. Friday is the last day of Black History Month and today’s column will talk about several more who fit that category.

Claude Robert Platte, Jr., Trained Tuskegee Airmen

Obi Greenleaf, former Denison city councilman, sent me a copy of an obituary from the Oct. 5, 2013 Dallas Morning News for Claude Robert Platte Jr., who became a pilot who as a civilian instructor trained more than 300 black pilots to be a Tuskegee Airman during World War II.

After the war, Platte became the first black person commissioned in the Air Force at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. He advanced to the rank of captain and had an 18-year career in the Air Force.

He was born in 1931 in Denison, then moved to Fort Worth, where he learned about segregation at a drinking fountain, according to his wife Erma Bonner-Platte in the newspaper article. She said he often told young people about his cathartic moment as a child when his father took him to town. "He didn’t know why one fountain was black and the other was white." She said. "He always had the idea that the white fountain had a better tasting water in it than the black one."

She said he had a second revelation when an airplane flew low over his neighborhood and he could see the pilot clearly. From then on he wanted to fly an airplane so he could see how people lived outside a segregated area.

Platte died Sept. 27, 2013 at the age of 92 in his Fort Worth Home.

Booker T. Ervin II

Booker Telleferro Ervin II, an outstanding Jazz musician, began his musical career playing the trombone as he performed with the Terrell High School Band in the late 1940s. He was one of a number of outstanding musicians turned out by Terrell School around the middle of the 20th Century.

Like so many young men of that day, he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Okinawa, serving from 1950-1953, all the while teaching himself the tenor saxophone. After he was discharged from service, he moved back to Texas for a short time before going on to Boston for a year to study at Shillinger House that later became Berklee College of Music.

Then it was "back to Texas" to begin a professional career by first touring with trombonist Ernie Field with his rhythm and blues band in 1956. Then he joined fellow sax player, James Clay, in the Dallas area for a while.

After arriving in New York City, Ervin bounced around a bit in the ‘50s before his friend Horace Partan recommended him to bassist and composer Charles Mingus, who invited Ervin to join his group as a trombonist, first performing at the Nontagon Art Gallery in 1959.

He was only 39 years old when he died on July 31, 1970, from kidney disease. He performed and recorded until the very end of his life, leaving behind a consistently high-level discography throughout his 15 years as a professional musician. He is remembered as one of the most influential sax players of the 1960s.

Helen P. Cole, Outstanding Female Drummer

Another great musician passed away during Black History month this year. She had been living quietly in Denison since she returned to her hometown in the early 1970s and worked as a switchboard operator, then a bookkeeper with a local bank until her retirement.

Among her fondest memories of her musical career was when she sat in with Duke Ellington’s band. She also played on a circuit with Nat King Cole and many others.

Not long after her birth in Texarkana, she and her mother moved to Denison, where she attended school and graduated from Terrell High School in 1943.

After graduation she enrolled at Prairie State College (Now Prairie View A&M University) where she worked toward a business degree. It was there that she joined the Prairie Co-Eds, an all-girl jazz band and played with three other Denison products, Margaret Bradshaw, class of 1941; Elizabeth Thomas Smith and Clora Bryant. Sherrie Tucker, in her book "Swing Shift, "All Girl Bands of the 1940s" called them as the Terrell High Contingent.

Helen toured with the all-girl band that often played before large groups, including intermission for notable groups including Ella Fitzgerald and former Ellington trumpet player Cootie Williams, who at the time was leading his own band. At the end of the tour the group disbanded and Helen and Bert Etta David and others of the combo continued performing with a smaller version of the band that wasn’t affiliated with the college.

Helen followed her musical career rather than complete her business degree. She stayed with the combo and they were booked by the Ferguson Brothers, the same agency that booked the Darlings of Rhythm. She later toured 14 countries, spending 25 years in combos, ending as a duet with pianist Maurine Smith until she died in 1971.

Sergeant Marva Lewis, Jazz Ambassadors vocalist

Denison native, 1983 high school graduate, and well known vocalist Sgt. Marva Lewis comes back to Denison every chance she gets with the U.S. Army Field Band’s "Jazz Ambassadors." Not just in Denison, but Sgt. Lewis’ vocal numbers also brings the audience to their feet everywhere she appears.

She has traveled to the far corners of the world and achieved great respect as an accomplished vocalist over the years. But she never forgot family and friends. As soon as she graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, she joined the Army and served with a number of prestigious military groups.

During that 2007 visit to Denison with the Jazz Ambassadors, she took center stage as vocalist and was promoted to Master Sergeant in front of her family and friends and was instrumental in honoring two Denison women for the part they played in entertaining service members during World War II.

Receiving the awards were Helen Cole and Judy Dawson, a cousin of Laverne Marguerite Hilliard Bradshaw, who accepted for Marguerite. They accepted the Commander’s Award for Public Service for outstanding civilian service to the United States Army in 1943 and 1944.

Correction: I got a little confused when I wrote about Lonnie Bunkley’s book, "Journey to Freedom" and would like to correct three errors in the article.

Lonnie, the author, was born in 1932. It was his uncle, Lonnie Bunkley, who was born in 1903.

The author’s father was a railroad postal clerk with the Federal Government and did not work for the MK&T Railroad. His uncle did.

It was the author’s paternal grandfather, not his father, who ran into the night to avoid the threat of being lynched.

I apologize for these errors.

Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at