By Brig. Gen. David C. HillFebruary 4, 2015
February is Black History Month, a time set aside to learn more about the many contributions that black Americans have made to our history, and to celebrate their culture and achievements.
The month has been officially observed in the United States since 1926, originally during the second week of February to coincide with the birth dates of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
This observance holds special meaning for those of us serving in the United States military, whether in uniform or as civilians, because black Americans have always fought bravely for our nation, side by side with their fellow countrymen. In the past, their patriotic efforts may have gone unacknowledged, their contributions sidelined to the shadows of history.
This month, make an effort to learn more about the role of black Americans in our nation's birth, development, and success. Make an effort to shine a light on the shadows of history.
For example, did you know that the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War was a black man?
Crispus Attucks was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Blacks also fought alongside white patriots at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, and they comprised almost a quarter of the Continental Army at the Siege of Yorktown.
The many heroic actions of black Americans during the Civil War are legendary. If you watched the movie "Glory," you know the Hollywood version of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, which was the first formal unit of the Union Army to be made up entirely of black men.
The unit was known for its courageous actions at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863, resulting in many Medals of Honor for valor. The reality of Fort Wagner was bloody and brutal, with many of that unit's Soldiers giving their lives for a unified country.
After the Civil War, the famed Buffalo Soldier units were formed, with members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They received their nickname from the Native American tribes they fought, and the name soon became synonymous with all of the black regiments formed in that part of the country in 1866.
As our nation grew, there were more firsts.
Army Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the United States' first black general officer, and his son, Air Force Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was the Air Force's first black general officer as well as the commander of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
They didn't achieve these positions easily. The younger Davis spent four years at West Point completely shunned by other cadets. The elder Davis was teaching at the Tuskegee Institute around 1920 when the Ku Klux Klan announced that it would march through his neighborhood. The institute advised staff to stay indoors and turn out their lights. But Davis refused. He put on his dress uniform, turned on the porch light, and gathered his family. They sat outside as the Klan marched by. The younger Davis never forgot about his father's shining porch light.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces, which eventually led to the end of segregation in the military services.
The order had a far reach, as evidenced today by the tremendous achievement and contribution from distinguished leaders including retired Gen. Colin Powell, Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick.
I encourage you to continue to shine a light, to explore the past and learn from it, and to work today for a better tomorrow.
As we go through Black History Month, look for those learning and teaching moments as well as the opportunity to illuminate the accomplishments of those who might have gone unnoticed in the shadows of our nation's history.