Throughout history, African-American soldiers fought and died in every American war on U.S. soil and abroad, yet the role they played has been largely ignored. And recognition for their contributions are rarely observed but for the efforts of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, historian, author and founder of Negro History Week.
Woodson, the son of former slaves who earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History — now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) — and dedicated a week in February 1926 to observe the achievements of African Americans from slavery to their contributions in the military during World War I.
Hundreds of ASALH members and supporters gathered for the 92nd Black History Luncheon Saturday, Feb. 24 at the Washington Renaissance Hotel in Northwest to remember Woodson and to follow in his footsteps by paying tribute to Blacks in the military, past and present, while exploring their reasons for serving.
A capacity-filled ballroom of military active-duty men and women, veterans, family members and survivors, along with college and high school ROTC officers, listened as Maj. Jaspen “Jas” Boothe, Army Reserves, moderated a discussion on the reason why Blacks join the military. Panelists included retired Lt. Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, Dr. James Dula, a retired Air Force major, and Cadet Simone Askew, first captain, U.S. Military Academy, West Point.
Askew, a Rhodes Scholar who at the age of 20 broke racial and gender barriers by becoming the first African-American woman to hold the position of first captain of the U.S. Military Academy’s Cadet Corp in August, received a standing ovation for her achievement.
Grateful for the exuberant applause, Askew told the audience that it is not her achievements that should be celebrated.
“We must begin to normalize excellence,” she said. “And the best way to do that is to increase our expectations of each other.
“Why do we just focus on the first, and not emphasize on the second and the third and the fourth?” she asked. “Until we increase those expectation not only of ourselves but on our community, we will not change our expectations about excellence. So I charge you to ask yourselves: what is next? What are we here to do next?”
Dozens of veterans received pins honoring their service in the Vietnam War, in recognition of the war’s 50th anniversary and commemoration that began in 2012 and extends to 2025. Despite the racism Blacks face in the military and when they return home, they continued to serve because “the military allows you to see an opportunity beyond where you are,” said Ward, a Baltimore native and 3-star general who served for more than 40 years in the Army.
Ward said his time in the military began as a student at Morgan State University, and it turned into a four-year commitment because the military “allows you to see an opportunity beyond where you are.”
Dr. James Dula, CEO of James Dula Consulting, is a retired Vietnam veteran of the U.S Air Force where he served for 30 years.
“The military,” he said, “was an attractive option, particularly for young men who lived in cities where jobs were not available in the early 1960s. The military gave them the opportunity to do something better with their lives, that Dr. King talked about.”
After years teaching middle and high school students, Dula said, “Youth today still have a burning desire to serve this country. They join to improve their lives, and for economic reasons and for an education that seems to be out of reach. They had the same patriotic desire I had when I joined the service in 1955.”
Members of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity were honored, as were Dr. Sheila Flemming-Hunter, ASALH Awards chair; Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, Temple University professor of history; and Edgar Brookins, general manager of the Afro-American Newspapers. Richard Collins III, the Bowie University student and Army second lieutenant fatally stabbed on the campus of the University of Maryland in an unprovoked hate crime in May, was also remembered with a moment of silence.
In addition, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a 41st Black Heritage series commemorative stamp honoring legendary performer and civil rights activist Lena Horne.