Celebrate Black History Month

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David Mason
  • 490th Missile Squadron commander
As you know, today marks the beginning of Black History Month, an annual celebration that has existed since 1926. At that time, it was only a week long and known as Negro History Week. Although Black Americans take great pride in our heritage all year long, Black History Month is a special time of year for all of us to set African-American heritage apart. It allows us to celebrate and pay tribute to all black pioneers who have gone before us and helped shape this great land of ours. 

Pioneers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose voice and vision filled a great void in our nation and answered our collective longing to become a nation where equal opportunity was offered to all of its citizens regardless of race, creed or culture. He was America's greatest champion of justice and equality ... he was an American pioneer ... and he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner. 

This month, we also celebrate and pay tribute to the greatness of other American pioneers such as Jackie Robinson who was the first African-American to play major league baseball. His courage and sacrifice helped tear down walls of racial oppression and discrimination in professional baseball and opened up the doors of opportunity for many professional athletes that followed, not just in baseball. Jackie Robinson and Dr. King are but two of the many, many American pioneers who pushed through the color lines which forever altered America's storied history. 

But in my view, one of the most celebrated examples of American pioneers pushing through the color line is that of African-American service members who helped defend America's freedoms, even when their own freedoms and opportunities were never guaranteed at home. This article is but a small attempt to honor some of those pioneers who were very influential in transforming a once segregated military into one that is at the forefront in providing equal opportunity to all its members. I can proudly say that I am able to serve with you today, in this capacity, because of African-American service members from years past. 

Service members like my grandfather, Jefferson Davis "J.D." Hayes, an Army veteran who served proudly for four years during the World War I era. I'm not exactly sure if granddad served in theater nor am I exactly sure what his core specialty was, but what I am sure about is for four years, granddad served in the Army during a period when our country was racially segregated and clearly divided between black and white. Social inequities ran rampant throughout mostly every community on the home front. But despite the suffering, African American males fought the biases to establish themselves as equals in hopes of being afforded the opportunity to fight the enemy and defend America's freedoms. 

The blacks that served during that period were assigned to segregated units and saw very little combat. Granddad didn't talk much about his time in the service, at least to me anyway. [You would think that for a military veteran, there has to be some kind of record of his service. Well, you're right, but know that every record that I can think of that lists granddad's service dates and units assigned were either destroyed in a fire that housed those records in St. Louis, or destroyed when his house burned down]. 

Granddad was a very proud man ... a man of great conviction and integrity. If he told you that he was going to do something, he did it no matter how large or small the task. His 20 or so men that worked for him on the farm always went the extra mile to make granddad happy and he rewarded them quite handsomely for working hard. I remember him giving me my own parcel of land when I was 6 so that I could experiment with growing crops. That's when I first realized, at such an early age, that farm living was not the life for me. 

Granddad would always let me drive the tractor which most times made the other workers just a bit uneasy. But I didn't care, granddad was the boss and he was the only authority I needed to answer to. Granddad was a successful entrepreneur, growing crops like tobacco, pepper and eggplant, and had a least two dozen people working for him at any given time. His employees absolutely loved working for him and loved me, as well, because I was the boss's grandson. But what stands out the most with me, and more now that ever before, is granddad was a military veteran and his service to our country helped blaze a trail for many service members to follow, me in particular. I can proudly say that his life shaped my life and I am forever grateful. Mom still has a poster-size picture of granddad in uniform placed neatly on a wall at home and every time I look at that photo, I try to envision what it was like to serve during those times. 

History teaches us that participation in the military was difficult for African Americans during that era. While National policy was geared towards making the world safer for democracy abroad, our very own communities at home were unsafe for people of color and the fight for equality was truly neglected. Black service men were assigned to segregated units and were ordered to perform what we would consider menial tasks. Out of the 380,000 black soldiers during the World War I era, only 42,000 saw combat. For those that were afforded the opportunity to command, they only led black units. There were few opportunities to prove themselves, but when those opportunities came knocking, African-Americans stood tall and answered. 

Take for instance the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the "Harlem Hellfighters." The Hellfighters earned their reputation as a vicious warrior for any adversary to encounter. Because there was no official combat role for black soldiers during this period, Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing assigned the unit to the French Army. In 191 days of intense frontline fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of the war such as Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood, the Hellfighters never had any men captured or any ground taken by the Germans. As a result of their valiant efforts, the French Army awarded the entire regiment the French War Cross. The performance of these warriors helped tremendously in improving the reputation of Black Americans as very capable fighters even though it did not do much to change the perception at home. 

Another unit worthy of note is the "Triple Nickel" 555th Parachute Infantry Company. The unit was started during World War II and became the first black airborne unit. It was uncommon for African-Americans to attend jump school during this period so these men had to prove their merit in some of the more austere conditions imaginable as airborne firefighters. Just think, our first reaction to escape any fire is to get away as quickly as possible, but imagine being called upon to jump into hazardous conditions. This was definitely not the normal 7-to-5 job. Under this mission, these brave soldiers successfully fought more than 1,000 fires in the Oregon and California forests caused by Japanese incendiary balloons. Because of their actions, those trailblazers paved the way for other black paratroopers. In 1985, Gen. Roscoe Robinson, the first African-American commander of the 82nd Airborne. The Triple Nickel will always be remembered as a unit that made the most of every opportunity even though their lives were in constant danger. 

These are two brief examples of African-American pioneers in the history of military service, I would like to highlight a unit that means so much to our rich history in the Air Force. The Tuskegee Airmen are well known for overcoming racial stereotypes and biases and always seizing opportunities to excel. They are known so much that Hollywood created a motion picture highlighting their distinguished history of military service. 

Air Force history documents the achievements of these Airmen and how they played a vital role in shaping the Air Force we serve in today. Gen. Kevin Chilton, former commander of Air Force Space Command, once said, "These men showed us the importance of having the drive to contribute to a cause greater than one's self -- a sense of selflessness if you will. And a determination to not take 'no' for an answer." These Airmen broke through the color lines at pilot training and helped tear down the walls of segregation for good in our military. They were also tremendously skilled pilots and were well known for what seemed to be superhuman feats at avoiding casualty while performing bomber escort duties over the skies of Italy and Romania. Their record of never losing a bomber they escorted to enemy fire still stands as one of the great milestones of combat aviation in America's distinguished military history. The Tuskegee Airmen's story defines courage, commitment and service. They had the courage to stand up to racial discrimination ... had the commitment to be the absolute best they could be ... and they were dedicated to serving as part of something greater than themselves. Freedom is never free and these brave men fought for democracy abroad even when their own equality was never guaranteed at home. Their successes were legendary and I'm a firm believer that their efforts helped shape the world's greatest Air Force we all serve in today. 

As we continue celebrating Black History Month, let's also remain committed to building a better society where equal opportunity is presented to all citizens. A few decades from now, our children and grandchildren will likely recall events from our present day that will cause them to wonder, just as we sometimes find ourselves wondering, about our sometimes dark history. Perhaps we in the military will be viewed as playing a vital role with moving our country forward with creating better opportunities for all, just as our forefathers did for us.