Celebrating Black History Month: Fred Moore, first African-American to 'walk the mat' of honor
February 17, 2012
When Fred Moore entered the United States Army in 1959, he felt an unsettling feeling. He was not unsettled because he was drafted, and he was not nervous about the rising tensions in a country named Vietnam. The situation was unnerving because Moore was an African-American Soldier entering the service during the civil rights movement.
"I had three older brothers who had been in the service, and the advice they gave me before I left was to keep my mouth shut and don't volunteer for anything," Moore said jokingly.
But Moore, determined to find his own way, volunteered for service in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). It was a decision which catapulted Moore into history and a move which literally blazed a 21-step path for other African-American Soldiers to follow.
Moore admits he was not very familiar with The Old Guard, but a series of "exceptional" scores on the Army entry test, or more so his physical stature, made Moore a good Honor Guard candidate. "Before we started basic training, we had to take a battery of tests, and after the tests were over, I was still in the reception center and one of the officers called me in to talk to me," Moore remembered. "He told me I had scored exceptionally high on the battery of tests. After looking at my ID, he asked me what I weighed and how tall I was. I was 6'1" and 185 pounds. He then told me I was the right height and weight for The Honor Guard Company -- a spit and polish outfit. He asked me how would I like to go there.
Without even having any idea what he was talking about, I told him yes." Moore commenced training at Fort Knox, Ky. and moved to Fort Hood, Texas for advanced training. He subsequently received orders to report to Headquarters Company in Arlington, Va., at Fort Myer.
"I was in Honor Guard Company assigned to the 3rd platoon," said Moore. "We performed most of the burials at Arlington National Cemetery. We did parades and different ceremonies in Washington, Fredericksburg and all around Maryland. We were the number one firing team." Today, Moore, who will turn 76 on Feb. 19, acknowledges he was a well-known Soldier in the regiment -- not so much for the notoriety his team was receiving around the region -- but it was quite noticeable that he stuck out from fellow Honor Guard Soldiers.
"I was obvious wherever I went," said Moore. "I was the only black on a military firing party. The officers would come up, and they would tell me, 'we see you, [and] you're doing a good a job.'" This statistic would prove to be in Moore's favor in the form of a visit from President John F. Kennedy and Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah.
"When Nkrumah came from Africa, and he and Kennedy were laying a wreath at the tomb, he asked Kennedy why he didn't see anyone of color," said Moore. Shortly after, Moore was directed to report to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for training. Moore distinctively remembers the brotherhood he established right away with his counterparts. Despite being the only African-American there, no one ever treated him differently.
"They all treated me very, very fairly," Moore remembered of his relationship with other sentinels. "You can't make it as an individual; it's got to be teamwork. You always need somebody to help you put your uniform on and make sure it's straight in the back and patting it down for lint and stuff like that." On a crisp morning in March of 1961, Moore stepped onto the hallowed marble to perform his first walk as an official tomb guard. While Moore took his premier steps, his brothers-in-arms kept an important, history-making secret from him. "I didn't know at the time that I was breaking the color line. They didn't tell me that until after, which I think was a good idea," said Moore.
"It was enough pressure just being a tomb guard. They thought it was best if I didn't know until after it happened." Moore logged the final six months of his Army service as a tomb guard. Looking back, he admits it was never about making history as the first African-American tomb sentinel, but fulfilling the mission.
"It was a job that I was given, and I just considered it a great honor," he said. "It was just an honor. You think of all the people who were in the service and only a few get the opportunity to be at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That's a very distinguished job. I had a lot of pride in what I did." Today, retaining his humility remains Moore's top priority, although for sentinels who have served after him, he is a celebrity in his own right. "I was really surprised the first time I went back for the tomb guard reunion. I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. They knew me but I didn't know them," said Moore, referring to the attention he received from Soldiers currently serving at the Tomb.
Now into senior citizenship, Moore has become a bit of a cult hero. He is an answer on a 100-question test sentinels must pass to earn their Tomb Guard badge. He also learned that his name was not an answer but a question during a syndicated game show nearly a decade ago. "My wife had to go to choir practice or something; she usually watches 'Jeopardy.' I wasn't watching it, but the Family members started calling [the house]. They said they heard my name on 'Jeopardy,'" Moore recalled with amusement in his voice. Moore's greatest wish; however, is that Soldiers today not dwell on his monumental accomplishment but find an inner-drive in themselves.
"When young guys talk to me about being the first [African-American tomb guard], I tell them I just took the opportunity that was afforded to me, but you guys are taking it to another level, so I am more proud of you all than I am of myself," Moore reflected. "I hope it gives them the confidence that they can do anything they set their mind to do. I'm not anything special. Certainly if I can do certain things, they are capable of doing even greater."
(Staff Sgt. Megan Garcia is a writer for the Old Guard Public Affairs office, and Jim Dresbach is a staff writer for Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall's newspaper the Pentagram.)