NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (NNS) -- The GTMO Multicultural Organization and the National African-American History Month Committee hosted a Black Heritage Month Festival at Morale, Welfare and Recreation's (MWR) Cooper Field Complex, Feb. 24, that celebrated the significant contributions of African-Americans in times of war.
"What's important to recognize here is that through the legacy of the military for the past 242 plus years we are all standing on the shoulders of giants," said Air Force Brig. Gen. C. G. Stevenson, deputy commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) and guest speaker for the event. "No matter what your culture, what your heritage is, you have taken a part in the American legacy. And this is just a small part of history from the African-American side."
On Jan. 31, President Donald Trump noted that over the course of our nation's history, African-Americans have endured egregious discrimination and bigotry. They have, nevertheless, always been determined to contribute their earnest efforts to America's greatness. He then signed a proclamation announcing this year's theme, "African-Americans in Times of War," which calls our attention to the heroic contributions of African-Americans during our nation's military conflicts from the Revolutionary War to present-day operations.
The Black Heritage Month Festival held on Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NSGB) included a guest speaker, the reading of African-American Medal of Honor recipients' awards, music, and food.
"What we want to do here is pay homage and share the contributions that African-Americans gave during times of war, which is the theme this year, and to give them some education, give them something to take home away," said Wednesday Wilhite, Equal Opportunity Program manager for JTF-GTMO. "We also added the food sampling because we all know that's how you get people out; fill their bellies."
The event included many different types of foods at stations around the festival, including Caribbean, Southern, African, Midwestern, and even Louisiana Creole delicacies.
Personnel Specialist 1st Class Joey Betts said that it important to hold events like this on NSGB because of the diversity of the base population.
"Being as diverse as we are, us coming together to do exactly what the general said, celebrate each other's contributions to the United States of America, it just makes that community even stronger," said Betts. "We already have a strong, tight-knit community and things like this just continue to strengthen our community."
Wilhite added that it is her duty is to promote diversity, education and prevention across the JTF when it comes to discrimination and sexual harassment. She noted that events such as the festival where people can learn about different cultures and information about others, help with that prevention tool and promote harmony and communication across the JTF. The education piece played a major role during the festival with many learning of acts of heroism and valor by African-Americans, as well as how underrepresented those African-Americans were in the total number of awards received.
"We're honoring African-Americans throughout the ages," said Stevenson. "It's important to celebrate this rich history and the over 242 years plus worth, not only did African-Americans fight wars, they had to persevere through racial prejudice, unequal treatment, diminished opportunities and segregation. If you look at African-Americans in times of war from the Revolutionary War to present-day war, you will realize that there is little documented history going back to the Revolutionary War."
Stevenson went on to discuss how not a single African-American had received a Medal of Honor directly following World War I or World War II, which went unnoticed until a survey in 1993 caused researchers to go back and look through all records to see if any awards had been merited but not received. That research resulted in finding nine African-Americans (two from World War I and seven from World War II) that did warrant the Medal of Honor but had not received it due to discriminatory practices. Between 1997 and 2015, these nine medals were awarded to the recipients, yet only one was still alive to receive it at the time of presentation.
During Naval Station Guantanamo Bay's Black Heritage Month Festival, several Medal of Honor awards were read aloud to the audience, noting acts of great valor by African-Americans in times of war.
"This is the story of history," said Stevenson. "These are validated events. These are regular, everyday people, ordinary people, that when called upon, they made the impossible look easy."
In World War I, there were 126 Medal of Honor recipients; only two were African-Americans. In World War II, only seven of the 471 Medal of Honor recipients were African-Americans, yet more than 1,000,000 had served. During World War II, African-Americans constituted 13 percent of the military forces, yet they constituted less than 10 percent of the American population. In the Korean War, there were more than 600,000 African-Americans who served. One hundred forty-five Medal of Honors were awarded, two African-Americans received them. In the Vietnam War, only 20 of 260 Medal of Honors were awarded to African-Americans. To date in military history, one Coast Guardsmen, 299 Marines, 747 Sailors, and 2,447 Soldiers have received the Medal of Honor. Of those 3,512 Medals of Honor, only 89 were awarded to African-Americans who have defended our nation and our freedoms in times of war.
"Over 40 million have served in America's wars and in the military and a small percentage of those are African-Americans and they continue to leave a legacy," said Stevenson. "But, let me tell you that part of history is still not well developed because we're still digging in. Back in 1973, the personnel center caught on fire and over 16 million records were destroyed. Think about that. Whose legacy, whose history is undocumented and unwritten?"
Events such as the Black Heritage Month Festival allow our community to continue to learn about those histories and keep the stories present in the minds of all who attend so that legacies can carry on. Of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients, less than 100 are still living today and only one of those living is African-American.
"This event embraced the history of African-Americans in the military, but it's more than that," said Stevenson. "Through the camaraderie, no matter who you are, no matter what service you're from, no matter what your ethnicity, your religion, national origin is, we're a fighting team. To embrace each other, to have that synergistic fighting effect; if you ever need a bit of motivation, go read some of those Medal of Honor recipients. They did a phenomenal job so that we are here living their legacy. With perseverance, with passion, with dedication and education, everyone here has the potential to be a Medal of Honor recipient."
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