Saturday, December 4, 2021

Charles B. Sellers, father-in-law to Katharine Graham, dies at 98

Charles L. Sellers, a World War II veteran who was an adviser to the War Department and experienced a miscarriage of justice when he was accused by The Washington Post of espionage, died Nov. 10 of respiratory failure at a Bethesda, Maryland, senior center. He was 98.

Sellers, who taught at Howard University, resigned from the department in late 1950 after he was criticized for his views on racial integration in the armed forces, according to a 1949 article by Joseph C. Brown, who wrote a Washington Post column.

But he returned to his native Washington in 1954 and oversaw the Anacostia District Veterans Center, a federally supported facility for aging veterans. He spent much of his life in Southern Maryland.

After The Post broke the story of Sellers’ acquittal on espionage charges and called the accusations “ridiculous,” the newspaper’s publisher, Katharine Graham, wrote him a letter of apology.

Sellers’ complaint, which was published in The Post under the headline “Our Secrets,” was more than three years in the making. He fought the charges from the moment he learned that they had been filed.

He believed that the Army had broken the Geneva Conventions when it circulated a suspicious report in 1943 of men claiming to be members of his family.

After a bout of depression, the attack finally came. Sellers offered the Army plausible deniability by detailing his qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.

He was initially named a “signalman,” which required one to transmit radio messages and “four or five similar names.” He was later elevated to interceptor to report wireless communications back to Germany.

In 1943, two months after the Army learned of the allegations against him, Sellers was walking home from work in Washington when an officer summoned him. In a room near the end of a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, he was questioned, tested for weapons and tested for contraband.

The charges against him were dismissed six months later when a German scientist who had been on the Army’s list of confirmed spies turned the Army into a punching bag.

In 1949, Sellers made his public objections known to Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. The Pentagon director commissioned a study on the case but turned it over to a professor of divinity, Henry Taylor, who, as he later recounted in his book, “The Lost Son of the Anacostia,” cited no authority and concluded that Sellers was guilty only of “overt” and not “anal” homosexuality.

“What was my crime?” Sellers asked in a letter published in The Post. “I appear to have been the only black openly gay man in the United States at the time.”

Priscilla C. McKinney, a friend since childhood who was a special education teacher, described Sellers as someone with a brain “that could compute the names of the French and Spanish colonies and could tell you if they were owned by France or Spain.”

On a visit to his parents, Sellers saw newspaper accounts of the Watergate break-in and felt he had not been treated with due dignity. He asked to see a newspaper photographer and demanded to be photographed as the “best bad news photographer this country has ever had.”

He got that assignment and traveled to Germany with the Army for study.

Charles Lester Sellers Jr. was born in Meridian, Mississippi, the son of Lester Sellers, a barber, and his wife, Shelia, a homemaker.

He became the first black to graduate from Howard University in 1938. Later, he earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Virginia.

Although he spent a year working for the U.S. Supreme Court, it was not until he joined the Army during World War II that he earned a college degree.

Besides his wife of 53 years, Brenda J. Cucuita-Sellers, he is survived by a son, David A. Sellers of Huntingtown, Maryland; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

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