By Rob Schuette, Fort McCoy Public AffairsFebruary 27, 2009
Knowing and learning about your history and talking about it reveals opportunities you have to seek social justice and make things better for everybody, said Thomas Harris.
Harris, the guest speaker at Fort McCoy's observance of Black History Month Feb. 19, told the audience what an honor it was to be at Fort McCoy and be the guest speaker for the event. He currently is the assistant director of Multicultural Student Services for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
The Army played an important formative role in his life as he served as a medic for three years, from 1980-83, in Colorado Springs, Colo., and West Germany.
"At that time, I didn't know what direction I was going in," said Harris. "The Army was pivotal as to where I went as an individual and as a leader."
"I always thought I had leadership qualities, but didn't always use them right and to the best of my abilities," he said. "The experience in the Army redirected and helped me focus on where I was going."
Harris talked about Black history, leadership and social justice during his presentation. He began by talking about his aunt who lives in Baton Rouge, La., by herself despite the fact she is 106-years-old.
About five years ago, Harris was in the room with his mother, sister and other relatives and asked his aunt "to tell me something about our history that we don't know." The aunt talked about their lineage, which included a white ancestor - a slave master who produced offspring with one of their Black ancestors.
"I thought 'why didn't I know about this' and asked her," Harris said. "She said, 'Both Blacks and whites were trained not to tell people and not to talk about it."
One of the main issues for everyone is they don't talk about their history. Harris said part of his history includes a kidney transplant from a white woman, who worked together with him several years ago on the mayor's anti-racism task force in La Crosse.
Harris said the experience encouraged him to examine what other people had done over the years to ensure their survival. He looked at the leadership qualities/tendencies that famous people used to achieve their successes.
People fought and made sacrifices to ensure he had a better life, Harris said.
For him, it was amazing to think about what some of the people went through - dying, families being broken up and the courage it took to face life and to take action - and it led him to ask questions of himself about what he could do to eliminate or confront racism and seek social justice during his life.
"I firmly believe that my Black ancestors were not only fighting for our own justice and freedom, they were fighting for everyone," Harris said. "The key is when things happen for the first time the ultimate historical moments occur. Although many courageous individuals have made the crucial decisions to act, more individuals are needed to stand up, say something and take action to help our institutions and systems create more positive influence and operate more effectively."
African-Americans have come a long way since they weren't recognized as people in the U.S. Constitution and later only as three-fifths of a person in an amendment to the Constitution, he said. The United States experienced the recent election of a black president but still has a long way to go, he said.
Everyone and every institution has positive and negative things in their history, but the key is to take those experiences and make all positives out of them, he said.
People need to gather and share their experiences while being respectful and understanding and hearing other people's opinions and perceptions, he said.
Lt. Col. Annie Jackson, Fort McCoy garrison deputy commander, said the country has come a long way. In her personal case, she is the first African-American garrison deputy commander in Fort McCoy's 100-year history.
Jackson said she is proud to be serving in such a leadership position for a great nation.
For more information about Black History Month or other special ethnic observances, call the Equal Opportunity Adviser at 608-388-3246.