WASHINGTON -- Army G-4's SGM Edward Bell challenged Soldiers to "roll up their sleeves and acknowledge there is still work to be done in providing equal opportunity" during a recent African American History Month Celebration at Fort Myer.
"We all stand on the shoulders of brave men and women who sacrificed so much, and for some even their lives, solely due to the pigmentation of their skin," he said. "We need to work together to ensure the momentum set by some of our heroes continues to provide opportunity to all based on character, commitment, and competence -- regardless of race, creed, or color."
In his history lesson to more than 150 Soldiers and civilians, SGM Bell pointed to several examples of how African Americans had to fight not only wars but racism.
He said African Americans played key roles during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, but their valor was soon forgotten and they were barred from military service.
They made up 10 percent of the Union Army during the Civil War, and President Lincoln credited them with winning critical victories. He then signed the 15the Amendment giving African American males the right to vote, yet it took until the 1965 Voting Rights Act to overcome local and state barriers blocking their votes.
In World War I, 350,000 blacks served in segregated units. "They were not considered fit to serve on the front lines," SGM Bell said. "But that myth was shattered by the Harlem Hellfighters --- an all-black unit whose support of the French Army earned a medal of bravery.
In World War II, more than 1 million African Americans served, including the famous segregated unit the Tuskegee Airmen. African Americans also made up 75 percent of Red Ball Express truck drivers, who brought supplies to troops who landed in Normandy and were heading toward Germany. Although African Americans fought with distinction, they returned home to a segregated America.
SGM Bell credited President Truman's 1948 order calling for equal opportunity to all members of the Armed forces as opening doors, yet it did not come easy.
In 1961 Specialist Fred Moore became the first African-American Tomb of the Unknown Soldier "Tomb Guard." This was during the civil rights movement and his three older brothers who had served advised him to "keep his mouth shut and not to volunteer," SGM Bell said. "Thankfully, he went with his own decision and volunteered making history that started here at Fort Myers. Still, it took another 36 years for the first African American Female Tomb Guard member --- SGT Danyell Wilson -- to be part of this amazing Old Guard Team."
Among giants who inspired him were: GEN Roscoe Robinson, the first African American four-star general; LTG Arthur Gregg, the first African American three-star general and one of the greatest logisticians of the last century; GEN Colin Powell, the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State; BG Hazel Johnson-Brown, the first African American female one-star general; GEN Vincent Brooks, the first African American First Captain at West Point; and GEN Lloyd Austin, the first African American Army Vice Chief of Staff.
He added that "we all look forward to the day we shatter another glass ceiling, with our first four-star African American female general."
"It is very inspirational to know 90 African-Americans received our Nation's highest Award, the Medal of Honor," SGM Bell said. "They gave their hearts, their souls, and in many cases their lives for our country."
SGM Bell, who grew up in Princeville, North Carolina, the first town established by freed slaves after the Civil War, challenged the audience to not just honor the past, but to secure the future.
"As we honor their past, we must continue to secure the future for this generation and the next generation in hopes that they too will benefit from your fruits and your labor, as we have benefited from the sacrifices of our heroes."
Today, 193,000 African Americans serve in the Army, making extraordinary contributions. "We are fortunate to serve with a Chief of Staff of the Army, GEN James McConville, whose number one priority is people," he said. "Your resilience, your courage, your humility, your selfless service makes a difference. If you know who you are and believe in your purpose you win regardless of the task at hand."
As part of the celebration, the United States Army Chorus gave a heart-felt performance of music saluting African Americans.