By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterMarch 1, 2018
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Fort Rucker and the 1st Aviation Brigade hosted the African American History Month Luncheon at The Landing Feb. 22 where people were able to visualize the struggle of those who had to fight for equal rights throughout history.
The theme for this year's celebration was "African Americans in Times of War," and was meant to highlight the contributions that African Americans have made throughout the nations many conflicts, and show that despite many trials and tribulations, the fight for equality isn't something that comes easy, said Sgt 1st Class Ronald Davis, 1st Avn. Bde. equal opportunity adviser.
"African Americans have defended our nation with loyalty, honor and patriotism during peace and in every war fought in the United States," Davis said.
Throughout the observance, stories were told, songs were sung and dances were performed, but it was Master Sgt. Anthony F. Thomas, Lyster Army Health Clinic, who helped people envision the proverbial brick wall that African Americans have come up against throughout history.
Thomas started by telling his own story of joining the armed forces and the resistance he experienced from a most unlikely source.
"I remember back to 1997 just as I broke the news to my family that I was joining the United States Army Reserve Command -- I was met with some conflict," he said. "My brother in law had joined the military, fought in Desert Storm, came back and recently got out of the military after serving for 10 years.
"I thought for sure if no one else would get it, that he would," Thomas said. "As he pulled me to the side he said to me, 'Brother, are you sure this is what you want to do? You haven't raised your hand yet. This Army is not for us.' I was taken aback, and he went on to explain that with all that he did and all that he tried, he would not and did not get promoted past sergeant."
For Thomas, that became his internal motivator. He said because of that he believed he could achieve anything he put his mind to and, four years later, he was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. But despite surpassing the rank, his brother in law couldn't seem to get beyond it -- it made Thomas reflect on those who came before that hit that brick wall.
He talked about the hurdles and sacrifices that African-American Soldiers had to endure throughout each conflict in American history, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, both World Wars and more recent conflicts, and with each wall they encountered, Soldiers added a brick on stage to represent what African Americans had to endure throughout history in the quest for equality.
"More than 5,000 African Americans, both slaves and free men, fought," Thomas said. "Slaves were promised freedom for their efforts, but unfortunately freedom would have to wait for them -- they hit a brick wall.
"Pursuing independence from Great Britain, African Americans fought for the United States during the American Revolution," he continued. "The first all-African American unit was formed … and in the Battle of Rhode Island, the regiment defeated three assaults enabling the entire American Army to escape a trap and later participate in a victory at Yorktown. Unlike their counterparts, these African-American Soldiers did not receive any compensation after the war -- they, too, hit a brick wall."
For each story he told, the wall grew higher and higher, symbolizing the obstacles African Americans had to endure throughout history, but Thomas continued to tell the story of those who continued to fight for the transition to equality despite the obstacles placed in their way.
He told the story of the369th Infantry Regiment during World War I who had their own war to fight before even reaching the front lines in Europe.
"South Carolina had lobbied to have Soldiers trained in their state, and when the 369th was sent there, they were shown the contemptuous side of the South," said Thomas. "The Soldiers were attacked, shot at, and on one occasion were told that two of their members had been lynched in the middle of town."
About 40 men from the unit decided to arm themselves and head into the town to retaliate, but were met by their commanding officer, he said. They were later told to endure the harassment because they were role models for their race, and to avoid any further complications, they were shipped as the first African American combat unit into Europe and were assigned to French army.
"They were on the front lines for 191 days during which none of the men were captured and they lost no ground," said Thomas. "The Germans stated that they fought like they were out of hell, and with that they were named the Harlem Hell Fighters."
When the symbolic wall was built on stage, Thomas asked, "Is this my brother in law's brick wall -- the result of ongoing discrimination and injustice? Well, at some point, we have to begin breaking down these barriers -- to begin reallocating these bricks."
With that, Thomas began to tell the story of African Americans who began to break barriers, and with each barrier broken, he removed a brick from the wall to begin transitioning it into something greater.
He told the story of Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, who went on to become the first African American general in the United States Air Force. He spoke of the "Golden Thirteen," who were the first African-American commissioned officers in the U.S. Navy in 1944. And he spoke about Barack Obama, who became the first African-American president of the United States as he was inaugurated in 2009.
With each story, Thomas rearranged the bricks into steps ascending upward to symbolize the path to greater opportunity.
"Today, African Americans are able to follow in the footsteps of those who have served our country with distinction and honor for hundreds of years," said Thomas. "They have been provided the opportunity to make a change -- to change our perspective, to change our culture.
"They took a brick wall and transitioned it to something different -- an opportunity for us to continue to move onward and upward," he said. "The fight is not over. The burden of responsibility falls to each and every one of us sitting here today. I challenge you all to look again to how we can impact change."