Fort Jackson honored the contributions of African-Americans Feb. 23 during an African-American/Black History Month luncheon at the NCO Club.

The theme of this year's event was "African Americans in Times of War," and coincided with centennial of the end of World War I, Col. Patrick Aspland, commander of the 165th Infantry Brigade, told the audience.

"This year, it specifically celebrates military accomplishments of African Americans throughout history," Aspland said, "highlighting their service and sacrifice spanning from the Revolutionary War to president day."

Poet Harrison Jenkins shared one of his works during the event, a piece that followed the history of African Americans during calls to arms.

"From the Battle of Lexington to the Battle of Fallujah, African American Soldiers have honorably served when called to duty," Jenkins said. "Serving great valor in the distinction in America's times of war, yet we have risen to the occasion to keep freedom's eagle and make sure it continues to soar."

Fort Jackson also invited Orisirisi African Folklore to perform during last week's event. The group, made up of Adetutu 'Tutu' Harrell and Don Harrell, shared African music and stories with the audience, a performance that underlined the importance of the drum to life and survival.

As a musical instrument, Don Harrell said it was a tool for enslaved people to momentarily break the shackles that held them, a device that was quickly recognized by slavers. So, it was taken away.

"But cruelty could not stop the Earth's heart from beating," he said. "It blew through us still and pushed not only out of our hands, but our entire bodies ... and we became the drums. Living drums beating for the whole world to see and hear."

The drum, even in its absence, became a symbol of hope, not just for freedom, but for the return of an endangered heritage.

"So when we walked along the path or worked in the fields, we made our feet drums," he said. "When we sang our songs in the moonlit skies, or spoke to one another, we made our voice drums. When we stitched our quilts or invented things, we made our hands and our minds drums. When we created our music, dance, paintings and theater, we made our art drums."

And the rhythm of those symbolic drums played a significant role on every American battlefield, he said.

"When we fought for our liberation, our civil rights, we made our courage drums," Harrell said. "And when we fought in the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, we made our bravery drums."

The guest speaker for the event, Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson, shared a short biography of one of those Soldiers to serve: 2nd Lt. Emily Perez, the first female graduate of West Point to die in the Iraq War and the first female African-American officer to die in combat.

"Her life was cut short at the age of 23 in Iraq on Sept. 12, 2006, when an improvised explosive device detonated near her humvee," Wilson said. "Emily is buried in section 36 on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River, alongside two centuries of fallen graduates of the U.S. Military Academy."

As a brigade command sergeant major, Perez had the distinction of being the highest ranking minority woman in the history of the U.S. military academy, she said.

"Emily's matriculation at West Point was made easier by predecessors like Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy," Wilson said. Flipper graduated from West Point in 1877 and was the first African-American to be commissioned in any branch of the U.S. military and became the first African-American officer to command African-American Soldiers.

"It is reported that Flipper was never spoken to by a white cadet during his four years at West Point," Wilson said. "But we are certainly grateful to men and women like Henry Flipper and Emily for persevering when they could have given up. I think it's so important that we remember them, and use these opportunities to tell their stories."