First African-American Fort Myer commander still considers post home
February 14, 2012
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. (Feb. 14, 2012) -- Retired Maj. Gen. Harvey Williams still has a yearning for on-post life. He visits Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall from time to time, and he takes comfort in roaming the hallways of Bldg. 59 and finishing his trip with a stop at the commander's office.
He knows the building. He knows the hallways. He knows the installation, which used to be called a post, but is now called a base.
He once was the post commander.
Less than a decade and a half after the Washington Redskins racially integrated its team roster and while episodes of overt racism were disappearing from the Washington, D.C., metro area, Williams was assuming command of Fort Myer, Va.
The year was 1975 -- a full calendar year before the country's bicentennial celebration and more than a decade following Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As a politically gun-shy nation healed its wounds from the Watergate scandal, Williams, then a colonel, was assigned as Fort Myer's post commander and became the first African-American commander on June 16.
"I come back every once in a while to say hello," said the 81-year-old Williams. "Because I really feel like this is my home. I lived twice here on the base -- both times on Lee Avenue -- and whenever I can, I stop in and say hello. I come in to wish [Col. Carl R. Coffman] well and to tell him some old war stories."
And Williams has plenty of stories to tell. He entered active duty in 1951 as a second lieutenant -- two and a half years after President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military. Williams commanded three artillery batteries, including missions in Korea and Germany, and he commanded two battalions, including one in combat in Vietnam.
Other stints of command include time with the 75th Field Group at Fort Sill, deputy commanding general of the Military District of Washington and the First Army, and he commanded VII Corps Artillery. He has also been assigned as assistant chief of staff for Intelligence as chief of the security division for the Department of the Army, the Military District of Washington chief of staff and deputy inspector general of the U.S. Army.
During his time as Fort Myer post commander, Williams was in the forefront of assisting dependents and Soldiers stationed on the base who longed for a boost in their quality of life. Those supporting and defending did not even consider the thought of hating a base commander because of the color of his skin. When asked if he ever encountered racism as the commander, Williams' answer was direct and to the point.
"No. Absolutely not," Williams said. "I know people have their feelings, but I was never able to sense any outrage or any dislike of the sort. What Soldiers and their dependents wanted was a leader who was going to take an interest in their quality of life, and that's what I did."
"We got a thrift club going," Williams added about how base life was improved in the 1970s. "We got better support for the engineers and we got the housing situation squared away."
After his military career, which ended in 1982, Williams was involved with information technology companies and with a nonprofit which brought IT into diversified communities.