A History to Remember
Editor's note: This story first appeared on this website February 2013.
Fifty years ago, one of America’s greatest leaders, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took to the national mall in Washington, D. C. to deliver what would go down in history as one of the most famous, profound, and prolific speeches ever delivered in America, “I Have a Dream.” King’s dream was “that one day ... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
He dreamed this dream out of a tragic history for the African-Americans in America. Instead of inclusion and citizenship, the “Negro” had been offered exclusion and slavery. Instead of equality and justice, the “Colored” man met inequality and Jim Crow. Instead of fairness and freedom, the “Black” man in America faced hatred and imprisonment. Today, the African-American stands liberated from a dreadful past, yet the race is still very much on a road to freedom and equality.
One hundred, fifty years ago and one hundred years prior to King’s famous speech, another of America’s most historical leaders, President Abraham Lincoln, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln stood firmly on the premise that the nation had been “conceived in liberty.” He was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
While the Emancipation Proclamation freed few slaves, it lit a fire under the nation and caused the Negro to fight harder and Whites to take notice. It was a wartime measure that made it very clear that the Civil War was more than a fight between north and south; it was a war between emancipators and enslavers.
Dr. King referred to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as a “great beacon of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice ... a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”
Today, we celebrate “At the Crossroads of Equality and Freedom: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington,” the national theme for African-American History Month 2013 as instituted by the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. This organization was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African-American to earn a doctoral degree at Harvard University after W. E. B. DuBois. He was also the father of Negro History Week, which became Black History Month now referred to as African-American History Month in America.
Why celebrate Black History Month? We celebrate Black history to reflect on the actual history, significance, and contributions of African-Americans in America. The time set aside to do so was not easy to come by. Black people had to fight for the very right to celebrate their struggle, their victories – their history. African-Americans have fought for every freedom they now enjoy; it is a story that must be told and retold until it becomes classic. The stories of slave ships and Middle Passage are important.
Phenomenal figures like Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and Ida B. Wells yield not just African-American stories; they yield American stories.
African-Americans like Phyllis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Madame C. J. Walker, Dr. Charles Drew, and the Tuskegee Airmen were pivotal influences in America. Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, freedom fighters, abolitionists, and so many unnamed others were instrumental on the journey toward freedom. Then there are the Emmitt Tills of history, whose stories tell the most tragic, dark side of it all. Though unpleasant, it is a past worth knowing; thus the history must be told.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson began the celebration as Negro History Week, and the world embraced it. His goal was that “we should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history.” It is important to recognize African -American leadership and achievement just as all other Americans are celebrated for their philanthropy, patriotism, historical significance, and contributions. There is an importance in writing the very names of history makers down. We need to identify with who did what, why, and how difficult it was for them to succeed as African -Americans.
When genius shows up and shines even in the darkest hours, it is extraordinary. African-Americans have exhibited extraordinary talent. It was evident in history, and it is evident today. It shows up in education, government, science, the arts, and entertainment. Today, many African-Americans continue to excel as they face challenges and beat odds; they go on and achieve greatness and expand and bring value to American culture.
An African-American, for the first time in history, ran for president of the United States, won, and was elected a second term. That is remarkable not just as African-American history; the election of President Obama is a sign of the tremendous growth, diversity, change, and hope for an America standing “at the crossroads of equality and freedom.”
The idea of celebrating African-American history was embraced in America, by people of all colors, because they felt the need to pay homage to a race of people whose story was not accurately and adequately recorded in American history. They embraced the idea realizing that the contributions of Black people in America were too often overlooked. They endorsed celebrating African-American history because the very strength, resilience, long suffering, and fight of a people once enslaved but now free is a strong testament of American hope.
Many inventions that we enjoy today are the inventions of African-Americans who have made significant contributions both nationally and internationally. African-American children need to know about these contributions; knowing their history gives them hope. African-American children need to be able to look and live beyond stereotypes and know that if their ancestors could achieve and succeed, so can they. American history is a long story, but it is a story that gives us all hope.
We are not living with that same racial divide of slavery and Jim Crow today, but we still face division in various forms in our culture. We are standing “at the crossroads” so to speak “of equality and freedom.” This month gives all people the opportunity to get a closer look at African-American history and culture, to know its relevance, and to put it into perspective. Many don’t know the struggle and cannot identify with it.
When you become familiar with the struggle, you can better identify with those who suffered it. It illustrates not only a willingness to tolerate difference, but openness toward diversity. Those who seek unity, peace, and equality do so by gaining a better understanding, an appreciation for the diversity with which we have been endowed in America.
The harsh reality of slavery in America tells the story of a brutal inhumanity of man. One cannot discuss American history without discussing African-American history. It is a story of triumph through adversity; it is a testament of hope in times of despair. African-American history is a reality that a deprived people suffered. It’s a dream that a King had, a Proclamation that a U. S. President signed. Today we stand a little more united, a little more integrated, more educated, but most importantly, we stand proud to be free of a past that crippled the nation.
Today Americans vote, eat, ride, go to school, and shop together, and we shouldn’t take this for granted. Good people lost their lives so that we could do it all. They were brave enough and bold enough to want our lives to be different, to be better; they bought this freedom we have to day, and they paid for it with their lives.
We should not neglect or let go of African-American history, this hope, or the dreams of those who dared to envision and fight for better tomorrows. Lincoln dreamed “of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope on earth.” Dr. King’s dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” He dreamed “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
Today, at the crossroads where equality meets freedom, where Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation meets the March on Washington and Dr. King’s Dream, let us all, no matter what our race, color, or creed, take on the responsibility of our past. Let us be those citizens who vow to wake up daily in order to make life great, to make America great, not just for ourselves but for all of mankind.
Remember the history of African-Americans. Celebrate it. Let us keep this history alive in the spirit of hope for generations.
How Buffalo Soldiers got their name
Buffalo Soldiers patrolled the frontier from Montana to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. “Many people ask me how African-American soldiers got the nickname, ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’” said former Army cavalryman, infantryman and musician John E. Wright. He answers by relating what the old timers of the 9th Cavalry Regiment told him:
White cavalry troopers went on patrol for five to around eight weeks, whereas black troopers would stay on the prairie for months at a time. African-American troops were outfitted with rejected horses, inadequate rations, deteriorating equipment and inappropriate clothing for the cold, snow and ice on the prairie, which took a toll on their health.
“A lot of them died from pneumonia, tuberculosis and other diseases,” Wright said. “In the garrison, they lived in tents in the low land, swampy area while the white troopers were on the hill in nice, warm barracks.” The original Buffalo Soldiers started killing buffaloes and drying the skins to make coats to keep warm, he said.
“The Indians respected the black troopers for their bravery in battle and noticed their hair was “woolly,” sort of like their buffalo hide coats. The Indians thought they looked like buffaloes, so they began calling them ‘Buffalo Soldiers.’” Buffaloes are sacred to the Plains Indians, so the nickname was considered an honor.
“African-American soldiers have worn that name with pride ever since,” Wright noted. “I’ve worn the buffalo patch in the 92nd Infantry Division and the 365th Regimental Combat Team in Italy during World War II.”
- Rudi Williams, American Forces Press Service
African-American airmen proved mettle in World War II
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – African-Americans were grounded in the U.S. military until the establishment in Alabama of a unique combat flight training program that began on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.
America was drawing nearer to fighting a global war with Axis powers Germany, Italy and Japan, and the U.S. Army Air Corps needed more pilots, bombardiers and navigators, as well as maintenance and other support personnel. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Air Corps to create an all-African -American military flying unit.
Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, is said to have been instrumental in her husband’s decision that provided African-Americans the opportunity to become military pilots.
The “Tuskegee Experiment” commenced in the spring of 1941 at the then-Tuskegee Institute at Tuskegee, Ala. Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. became the first African-American to fly a military aircraft solo as a U.S. Army Air Corps’ officer.
On March 7, 1942, the first group of African-Americans to graduate from military flight school was inducted into the Air Corps. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Davis assumed command of 99th Fighter Squadron on August 24, 1942
Almost 1,000 African-American pilots were trained at Tuskegee until 1946. About 450 deployed overseas to Europe, and 150 airmen lost their lives in training or in combat.
While serving with the 332nd Fighter Group and its subordinate 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, Tuskegee graduates flew more than 15,000 combat sorties during World War II, destroying about 500 enemy aircraft and a destroyer. And, the Tuskegee airmen never lost a bomber to the enemy during allied B-17 and B-24 bomber formation escort duties.
Tuskegee fliers also earned 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 8 Purple Heart Medals and 14 Bronze Star Medals.
The U.S. Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. would continue his military career after the war ended in 1945. In 1954, Davis was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first African-American general officer in the U.S. Air Force.
Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. was another Tuskegee graduate who would achieve high rank in the Air Force. In September 1975, James became the first African-American officer in the history of the U.S. military to attain four stars, signifying full general rank.
The “Tuskegee Experiment” proved that African-American pilots could fly and fight as well as their white counterparts. And, the Tuskegee pilots’ wartime exploits played a key role in President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 decision to desegregate the U.S. military, which in turn opened up opportunities for all African-Americans.
Black troops freed themselves, America from slavery
By Nick Simeone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – A noted author recently highlighted for Pentagon employees an often-overlooked fact: the loyalty that emancipated slaves displayed toward the country that enslaved them in the days leading up to the end of the Civil War.
Dr. Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, spoke at the Pentagon as part of the Defense Department’s commemoration of African-American History Month.
Ayers, a historian specializing in the Antebellum South and the author and editor of 12 books on the history of the southern United States, was invited to speak on the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in states that had seceded from the Union during the Civil War and allowed blacks to serve in the Union Army and Navy.
“With the Emancipation Proclamation, Jan. 1, 1863, African-American men can fight for the United States. They’ve been held at bay for two years, but with incredible loyalty to the nation that had betrayed them so badly, they come to the defense of the United States,” Ayers said.
But short of a military victory by the Union, that document would have been only words on paper – it was the effort put forth by African-Americans themselves to ensure emancipation by supporting the military that became just as pivotal as the proclamation itself, Ayers said.
“The controversy among historians is, was it self-emancipation? Did the slaves free themselves? They risked everything that they could to free themselves, but without the presence of the United States Army, there was nothing to free themselves with,” the historian said. During four years – from the first shots at Fort Sumter to the time the Civil War ended in 1865 – some 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought on the side of the Union and for freedom.
But the black struggle did not end there, Ayers said. The South was left in ruins by the war, and as history has shown, the legacy of slavery continued to haunt the nation for decades.
“This is the beginning of the story. This is the beginning of America slowly becoming itself and fulfilling what it had promised,” Ayers said.
“Beginning with the 180,000 black soldiers and 20,000 black sailors, African-Americans have stepped forward to defend this country from the very first hour that they were committed to, to today.”