A Black History Month Observance took place Wednesday afternoon at Club Stewart celebrating the contributions of African-Americans in military service and the advantages of diversity. The theme of this year’s observance was “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.”
Spc. Britney Sanders and Sgt. Assad F. Bassue read President Barak Obama’s proclamation for National African-American History Month 2016.
A portion of the proclamation reads, “During National African-American History Month, we recognize these champions of justice and the sacrifices they made to bring us to this point, we honor the contributions of African-Americans since our country’s beginning, and we recommit to reaching for a day when no person is judged by anything but the content of their character.”
Lt. Col. Ryan Embry, commander of 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, gave the opening remarks. He said that in keeping with the spirit of the civil rights movement, the observance would not have a main speaker.
'“We don’t need one. Instead, we’ve elected to highlight the diversity within our own ranks and showcase our Dog Face soldiers and non-commissioned officers,” Embry said.
Soldiers of the 1-64th AR BN touched on Savannah’s history with civil rights, the military’s push for diversity and the benefits of diversity within the Army.
Staff Sgt. Justin Fauntleroy said the U.S. military was ahead of its time when it came to diversity and the advancement of civil liberties.
He explained that Union Gen. William T. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15, which seized properties off coastlines from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. Johns River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Island, to redistribute to newly freed African-American families after the Civil War. Four hundred acres were distributed in 40-acre segments.
Sherman also authorized the Union Army to loan mules to newly settled farmers, which is where the saying “40 acres and a mule” is thought to originate.
Sherman also encouraged freedmen to join the Union Army in order to sustain African American’s new freedom.
Fauntleroy then highlighted parts of Savannah’s history involving the civil rights movement. In 1947, nine men were sworn in as the first African-American men to serve on Savannah’s police force — eight of whom were veterans of World War II.
Shortly after that, African-Americans were registered to vote, and community leaders and business owners worked together to desegregate the city’s facilities.
“Savannah was officially desegregated in October 1963, eight months ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This made Savannah the first city to be desegregated in the South,” Fauntleroy said. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, ‘Savannah is the most integrated city south of the Mason-Dixon Line.’”
Pfc. Steven Carberry highlighted the integration of African-American soldiers in the armed forces. He said black soldiers were viewed as unfit for service in combat roles before World War II despite serving in previous American campaigns.
They were allowed to serve in support roles such as supply and transportation of equipment. The NAACP campaigned to allow black soldiers in combat roles, and the armed forces created segregated units like the Tuskegee Airmen and 758th Tank Battalion.
“One all-black platoon was added to a rifle company in order to test the soldiers alongside white soldiers. When asked before the experiment about serving with soldiers of color, 75 percent of NCOs believed they couldn’t fight. After the war, of those surveyed, 84 percent believed they were an asset to their company and viewed them as equals,” Carberry said.
The 758th Tank Battalion, one of two all-black tank battalions, served with distinction in the Italy during WWII. After the war, the unit was redesignated as the 64th Heavy Tank Battalion. The battalion’s crest, designed by one of the platoon’s original members, is the head of a black African elephant that symbolizes the soldiers’ pride in their heritage and the unit’s mobile armored warfare. In 1948, Executive Order 9981, issued by President Harry S. Truman, abolished racial discrimination in the armed forces.
Sgt. Nichole Danley said the Army is one of the largest organizations with diversity.
She talked about how diversity in the workplace has made her a better leader and allowed her to learn from people with different backgrounds and unique experiences.
“The Army has allowed me to be different and keep my values, beliefs and heritage and work in a non-hostile workplace that is free from discrimination,” she said. “Diversity in the workplace forces growth in soldiers by forcing them to adapt to other cultures and prepare, accept and respect their viewpoints.”
For Spc. Antasia Miller, diversity has expanded her thought process, allowing her to be more efficient at problem-solving — especially in time of adversity when soldiers have to think quickly.
Maj. Derrick Murray said diversity cannot be achieved through tolerance, but an organization must choose acceptance and incorporate different ideas.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jabari Williams said diversity and strength could be found in the audience. He said that to understand a person, one must learn that person’s history.