FAIRMOUNT HEIGHTS — Family and friends gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of World War II veteran, business owner and Prince George’s County resident Charles H. Lancaster Sr. on Saturday, June 30.
“He’s the patriarch of the family, and he’s been a tremendous asset to the community,” said Lancaster’s granddaughter Sidney McNeil. “It’s special to see so many people come out to celebrate him.”
Lancaster was driven to the Cedar Heights Community Center in a fire truck from the Chapel Oaks Volunteer Fire Department escorted by the Buffalo Soldier Motorcycle Club. As soon as he stepped out of the truck, he was greeted by a group of friends, family and his wife of 74 years, Gloria Lancaster, to help him celebrate this milestone and celebrate the many accomplishments he’s made throughout his lifetime.
He was born on July 3, 1918, in Fairmount Heights and grew up in and around the area with six other siblings. After graduating from Phelps Vocational High School in 1936, five years later he enrolled in the army. During his years there, he served in the all-black segregated 92nd infantry and was promoted to First Lieutenant where he led a company of 187 men and five officers for two months during combat operations.
Because the 92nd infantry was the Buffalo Soldiers unit during World War II, the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club of today learned of him about five years ago and made him an honorary member.
“It’s a great honor for us to know a man who has done as much as he has,” said Vice President of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club Mason Monroe.“To know what he has done is a great honor to have him as a member.”
For his service, he was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded in action and received the European Theatre Ribbon with three stars, American Theater, American Defense, Victory Ribbons, Italian Occupation Ribbon and in 1983 received the Bronze Star after it was determined that numerous servicemen had not received the proper recognition at the time. He was then an officer in the army reserves and retired in 1953.
Following his service in the army, Lancaster led a very full and accomplished life. He operated a logging business which cleared large portions of Silver Spring and White Oak. He was the first African American to purchase a franchise from the Sun Oil Company and ran a Sunoco gas station in Fairmount Heights which he and his wife later converted into a grocery store.
He helped to found the Chapel Oaks Fire Department. In the early 1950s, the community recognized the need for a new fire department after a fire claimed the lives of three children. Lancaster offered property to build the fire department and was able to secure a loan to go towards the effort. He then went before the Maryland General Assembly to request funding equal to those received by white fire departments and was told they could not have it because they did not have professionally trained firefighters.
Lancaster then took it upon himself to enroll in fire training school, became a firefighter and encouraged others to do the same. He then went back before the General Assembly, and a bill was passed to request state funding. Lancaster continued to raise the financing of the fire department and commissioned a state of the art fire truck that received recognition as far as New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.
Although he made many public achievements, Lancaster was very involved with his family and the community as someone who was always willing help people in any way he could, McNeil said.
“He is someone who is strong and all about family and the community,” she said. “If he can help someone, he will no questions asked.”
Other family members look fondly upon what they learned from him and the times they shared with him. His daughters Sharon and Marian spoke of him proudly as a man of “principle, honor, and courage who never allowed anything to stand in his way.”
“He was tough, he was in the military, so he was a very stern father,” said Marian. “When we were kids, we didn’t get it, but as an adult, he instilled in us the sense to achieve.”
The birthday celebration, full of tributes, performances and the sharing of memories, has been about a year in the making. The outpouring of love for someone who has lived such a long life and has done so much was evident.
“I could go on about him,” McNeil said. “He’s very understated, he has never been one to seek the spotlight. He always said he would make it to 100.”