Observance highlights African-American service to US
February 25, 2011
FORT RILEY, Kan. - West Point's first black cadet brigade commander told a Fort Riley audience that contributions made by black Americans in the service to their country have been "poorly documented and inadequately observed."
Maj. Gen. Vincent Brooks, 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley commanding general, made that remark during his keynote speech at the post's Black History Month Observance Feb. 16 at Riley's Conference Center.
This year's Black History Month theme focused on African-Americans and the Civil War.
Brooks spoke about African-Americans involvement in wars, from before the U.S. was free, from the British to present day wars.
"This history should cause us pride and embarrassment at the same time," Brooks said, adding the U.S. has a spotted history in fulfilling its own promise.
The history of African-Americans protecting the U.S., he said, dates back to before the country was free from British control when the British armed colonists against threats to their colonies.
"The true history is an unbroken lineage in service to America in every conflict from before the revolution ... into the present day, where an African-American four-star general commands operations in Iraq and another is one of the six geographic combatant commanders," he said. "Unbroken lineage not often told and little remembered."
For the promise of freedom, full citizenship and equal rights, not necessarily for them, but for their children, African-American men voluntarily entered military service repeatedly and demonstrated a willingness to lay it all on the line, Brooks said.
After each emergency the country went through, he said, the gallantry of African-Americans who fought was forgotten, and the differences in color and race dominated again.
"A new generation had to be responsible for advancing the opportunity for service beyond the example of their predecessors, and this pattern would be repeated for nearly 200 more years," he said.
When the Civil War came, African-Americans responded to the call for volunteers only to be denied by the Secretary of War.
"As the war proved that no manpower could be spared on either side, blacks joined the ranks of both the Union and the Confederacy out of a sense of community and in hopes of fulfilling that dream," Brooks said.
Despite a casualty rate of 40 percent higher than in white units and receiving half the pay and sometimes no pay for their service, African-Americans still lived in a segregated world, Brooks said.
Gen. John J. Pershing, who served at Fort Riley, demanded that no American troops would serve under foreign command.
Nevertheless, when the time came and the French requested troops, he sent African-American troops to support them.
"While he may have had confidence in them, our nation wasn't ready yet," Brooks said.
The chief of the cavalry at Fort Riley protested the mixture of races, saying it would not work in units because it would not be as effective as a racially homogenous unit would, Brooks said, as he recalled a piece of the post's history.
"How ironic it is that I now live in the house of that chief of cavalry and command an ethnically and gender diverse division at Fort Riley called the 'Big Red One,'" he said.
Many of the people who live and work at Fort Riley, Brooks said, know little of the history celebrated during Black History Month.
"We are now at a point where I believe we have to decide for ourselves if history is something we study or something we make," he said.
Brooks told the audience about his own piece of history of being part of the only African-American Family with three generals in two generations, and one of only three Families where two generations have had general officers.
The generals include Gen. Chappie James, first black U.S. four-star general; Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., first African American to hold star rank, his son, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.; Brig. Gen. Daniel James III; Maj. Gen. Leo A. Brooks Sr., and his sons, Brig. Gen. Leo A. Brooks Jr. and Maj. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks.
"I don't take for granted that which came before me. I study it a lot because it's part of what I have to understand," he said.
Though Brooks said he does not know where the prejudice came from, there is no place for it now.
"Be the generation that does its part for the next generation, that keeps doors open and continues to move forward," he said.