FORT BENNING, Ga. - "Don't buy what you don't need; pay your bills on time; save and invest - financial empowerment begins with you."

That was Col. (Ret.) Myles Caggins Jr.'s message during his keynote speech for the Black History Month Luncheon Feb. 11 at the Benning Conference Center. The theme for the luncheon was "The History of Black Economic Empowerment."

"No matter what the condition, individuals or groups who prepare well and have a desire to prosper can," said Caggins, who shared the story of April William Ellison, a slave-born Southerner who became a successful cotton gin manufacturer through his grit and determination.

Ellison studied carpentry, blacksmithing and machinery as an apprentice. He purchased his freedom in 1816 and later the freedom of his wife and daughter. The entrepreneur continued to profit, even with the start of the Civil War, by converting his South Carolina estate to crop production, matching the market's increased demand for food.

"Lessons form this historical example can empower you to wealth today," Caggins said. "Education matters. Good character matters. Diligence matters ... Individual ingenuity can produce prosperity in difficult times. The desire of April William Ellison empowered his will to persevere and overcome what could have been insurmountable odds."

Such "black economic giants" exist today and continue to pursue success despite challenges, said Caggins, assistant superintendent for Muscogee County School District's business affairs.

"Although our country and many of us individuals are facing economic hardship there is still hope," he said. "Regardless of today's hardships, we as a people collectively are far better off than 1864 and 1964."

Christine Dawson, a friend of Caggins who attended the luncheon, remembers the limited economic prospects available to African-Americans when she was growing up in the '60s. Since that time, America has made great strides toward equality, she said.

"Opportunities for African-Americans have improved greatly since the '60s. Doors have opened in education, housing ... all aspects of life," said Dawson, whose son serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Maryland Army National Guard. "We are a more inclusive society. Career options are broader. You can work toward employment in countless fields that were not open to you in the past. We, too, can live the American dream."

Dawson said she thought Caggins' financial advice was applicable to today's population, regardless of an individual's ethnic background.

"All I think anyone wants is a fair shot," she said.

"We're not 100 percent there - no situation is perfect - but you must take personal responsibility. I don't think you should use your personal circumstance as an excuse for not persevering toward your goals. Work hard; sacrifice; be of good character; treat people the way you want to be treated. Generally speaking, things have a way of working out if you do your part."