FORT BELVOIR, Virginia –
McNamara Headquarters Complex employees celebrated Black History Month Feb. 18 with songs, speeches and special guests who served during three decades of U.S. military action from World War II to Vietnam.
“Black Americans have been at the forefront of our country’s fight for freedom from the very founding of our nation and have participated in every war the United States has fought,” DLA Director Lt. Gen. Darrell Williams said as he introduced members of the Armed Services Retirement Home in Washington D.C.
Special guests included Navy veteran Billy White and Army veteran Esker McConnell, who both served in the Vietnam War. Army veteran Lee Smith served in the Korean War, and Army veteran Larry Gillespie served in Vietnam.
Williams also introduced the “gentleman in the red jacket,” Major Anderson. A few weeks shy of his 95th birthday, Anderson is one of the original Tuskegee Airman and received a standing ovation from the audience.
“We are in the presence of living history,” Williams said, honoring the five veterans with pins and plaques.
The 244-year history of America could not be told without recognizing the incredible contributions of black Americans, he continued, adding that this year’s Black History Month theme is “Honoring the past, securing the future.”
Black Americans played a key role in every military conflict beginning with the Revolutionary War.
“I am extremely proud of being an officer in the United States military, a family tradition,” said the Hampton University graduate. "I am proud to be an African American and, perhaps most importantly, I am proud to be an American.
“On the [university] grounds stands the Emancipation Oak, site of the first southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Today, that venerable oak, with a canopy that spreads more than 100 feet across, still stands proudly linking our past to our present,” he said.
The proclamation’s eighth paragraph opened a doorway to a journey that led Williams, an African-American officer, to where he is today. It reads: "And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service."
Williams reflected on the segregated units that played an integral part in the outcome of World War II even though black Americans continued to fight segregation and discrimination at home.
Due to the success of units like the Tuskegee Airmen and others, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in July 1948. The order stated: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President…that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity…for all persons in the armed services…without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”
“I think of the service men and women presently serving in combat zones around the world, and I think even more about their families and loved ones and their collective sacrifices. And in that context, there is no color or race or religion,” Williams said. “They are all Americans protecting our nation and our way of life.”
That, he added, is the legacy of heroes like the veterans in the audience.
Negro History Week was first celebrated in February 1926 and included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Black history clubs became popular soon after and teachers began including black history in the curriculum in the early 70s.
The celebration was expanded to a month in 1976 and President Gerald Ford urged Americans to honor the “too-often neglected accomplishments” of black Americans. More information on African-American History Month is available at www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov.