As a native Washingtonian, I grew up in a predominantly African American community and proudly attended D.C. Public Schools, where Black History was taught as a regular part of the curriculum, and not just during February. As far as my elementary school music teacher was concerned, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Black National Anthem,” was to be sung at the start of every school assembly–all three verses, without sheet music. By first grade, I had it memorized–all three verses. I still do. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I discovered not everyone who grew up in an African American community had the cultural awareness that I had always taken for granted. This is why February is so very important, not just for me, and not just for other African Americans, but for every American. We all benefit when we take the time to learn more about the various cultures that make up the great melting pot in which we live.
Created as Negro History Week in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month has been set aside to observe, remember and celebrate important people and historic events in the African American community. I think that while we are at it, we must not overlook the contributions, service and sacrifice of African American veterans, who often go unsung. They are ordinary people who made the extraordinary decision to don a United States military uniform and put their lives on the line. Many of these brave men and women served even though they were doing so for a country that did not respect them simply because of their race.
African Americans have participated in every major United States war since colonial times. A few of the more recognizable units in which they served are the Buffalo Soldiers, who originated as the Army’s 10th Cavalry Regiment and served in the Spanish-American War, World War I and the Italian campaign of World War II; the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” said to have never lost a man to capture or a foot of ground while they were on the front line; the Montford Point Marines, who received basic training in a segregated boot camp; and the Tuskegee Airmen, a World War II African American aviation group whose story has been brought to light through books, in Hollywood and on the small screen. The list goes on.
The Veterans History Project (VHP) has more than 2,500 collections from veterans who self-identified as Black or African American on their submission forms. Some share the harrowing and heartbreaking tales of enduring harsh and unfair treatment due to racism, such as World War II veteran Oneida Miller Stuart, a member of the Army Nurse Corps who often encountered racist, wounded patients who would rather die than let her help them. Robert Lee Rice, like so many other veterans, was a firsthand witness to death and destruction in Vietnam. He survived the physical wounds he sustained, but the unseen wounds are often hardest to heal.
Because I made it, I have what they call ‘survivor’s guilt.’
Other African Americans in the VHP archive discuss overcoming racial and gender barriers, and going on to rise through the ranks to enjoy successful military and civilian careers.
Among them is Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris, who was the first African American woman to be promoted to general officer in the National Guard. She retired as a Major General and is now the Director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Center for Women Veterans. In a speech she donated as part of her VHP collection, Trowell-Harris said,
In spite of numerous roadblocks, my goal was to turn obstacles into steppingstones and move up the career ladder – because I had a road map to follow for my family, my community, my state and my country.
There is also Lieutenant General Julius Becton, Jr., who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War–both before and after the military was desegregated. In addition to his distinguished military career, during which he received the Silver Star, Becton also reached high ranks in civilian life as director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration, President of Prairie View A&M University and Superintendent of D.C. Public Schools, where students continued to gain cultural awareness under his watch.
I encourage you to take the time to learn more about African Americans who served, not just this month, but during all other months too. You can start here. Use the comments section below to tell us which veteran’s story resonated with you the most.
A special thank you to the following for contributing facts to this post: Renaee Allen, Shannon Middleton and Daryl Michael Scott.