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Personnel living and working on Naval Support Facility (NSF) Dahlgren packed the Dowell Community House on Feb. 9 to celebrate Black History Month with speech, song and of course, food.

The theme of this year's celebration was "Black Women in American History and Culture," a theme presented enthusiastically by Master Chief Petty Officer Evelyn Banks, command master chief of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) and the ceremony's guest speaker.

After the presentation of colors by the Aegis Training and Readiness Center color guard, and recognition of command staff present, Jessica Kennedy, an engineer with Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) W43 and president of the Fredericksburg chapter of the Society of Woman Engineers, addressed the crowd.

"This year, with a theme of black women in American culture and history, I'm delighted to welcome you to this tribute, [one which] will share the impact that African-American women have had on our society," said Kennedy. "With attentive ears and curious minds, please enjoy this celebration. You are indeed welcome."

Aaron Anderson and Craig Cornish, assigned to NSWCDD W61 and G73 respectively, treated the crowd to a rendition of Bill Withers' classic "Lean on Me." The initial ceremony plan called only for Anderson to sing; he was joined by Cornish only minutes before the ceremony began, though the pair's spirited performance gave no hint at the improvisation.

Cornish said the duet came naturally. "I've been in the church a long time," he said. "It kind of comes with the territory."

Overcoming Ignorance of the Past

Capt. Peter Nette, commanding officer of Naval Support Activity South Potomac (NSASP), praised the contributions African-Americans have made to society and revisited the creation of Black History Month.

"Recognition of black history only began in this country in 1926," said Nette. "It was founded because of one man, Doctor Carter G.

Woodson. Doctor Woodson said he created this observance, because for too long he had seen centuries of African-American contributions be overlooked, ignored and even suppressed by writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.

"Black History Month was created as way of overcoming this lack of knowledge and awareness. [Woodson] believed that one of the greatest sources of racial injustice is ignorance of the past," said Nette. "So [today] is about recognizing 400 years of African-Americans, whose lives helped make the country what it is today, who made contributions to every sphere of our national life, from culture and business, to politics and science."

Capt. Michael Smith, commander of NSWCDD, spoke about the origins Black History Month as well as its 2012 theme.

"Our history is rich with examples of the accomplishments of African-American women," said Smith. "From Harriet Tubman, the leader of the underground railroad from slavery, to Rosa Parks, a name we will always [associate] with the modern civil rights movement, to artists such as Gwendolyn Brooks and legislators such a Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, our nation is stronger because of their contributions."

After reading a portion of President Barack Obama's 2012 African-American History Month Proclamation, Smith praised the contributions African-American Sailors have brought to the Navy.

"Today, we particularly honor those Africa-American men and women who have served in the United States Navy," he said. "African-Americans have served bravely in the Navy through every war and conflict since the American Revolution."

Dwayne Nelson, an engineer assigned to NSWCDD W24 and vice president of National Society of Black Engineers, Region Two, Potomac River Alumni Extension Chapter, described his organization before introducing Banks. "Our mission is to increase the number of culturally-responsible black engineers, who excel academically, succeed professionally and have a positive impact on their community," he said.

Down to Earth Geeks

Nelson then gave a brief career summary of Banks, who took center stage and gave a rousing speech. "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," said Banks, quoting African-American civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. "I refuse to give up."

"To Captains Nette and Smith, to all these dignitaries who elevate the platform and to all of the men and women of the NAVSEA family out here in Dahlgren, I've got to say 'thank God,'" said Banks.

"I thank Him for the warm hospitality, for the kindly invitation, for the time I've graced these hallowed halls. And I sure thank God for the parking space. Everywhere I go in NAVSEA, folks say 'we don't have enough parking.' So if we don't have enough, for me to catch one, I'm eternally grateful."

Banks thanked the members of the Dahlgren community for making her visit possible and addressed one of Dahlgren's most pervasive stereotypes. "I thought I was going to be speaking to... geeks," she told the chuckling audience. "You folks here at NAVSEA, you're all smart geeks, and I say that affectionately. Just really, really, really smart.

"And rarely do you get a bunch of smart folks together who've learned how to humanize themselves and just be down-home, good folks. So I thank you smart geeks for being down to earth," she said.

Banks recounted the role race played in her childhood and professional career with a humorous style all her own. "As I pondered my thoughts for today's remarks, I kind of focused on the theme, black women in culture and history," she said.

"You know, with a little bit of education behind my belt, I could fix you all up a good speech. I could probably match the subject and verbs together and I could work and work on my diction, but since this is about black women, I'm going to give you who I am. They did teach me noun/verb subject agreement; I did learn [that] in the third grade back in Mississippi. But I have got to tell you, it feels good sometimes to slash those verbs in half."

Banks credited three women for making her the woman she is today: her mother, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Coretta King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr. "A lot of folks complain about how bad life is, how bad things are," said Banks. "Well, if you're going to complain, get up and do something."

It was after the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, however, that Banks said she experienced racial discrimination in the Navy during her career. When an officer made unbecoming remarks about Banks' race, gender and time-in-rank as she checked in on board a ship for the first time, Banks requested the officer judge her after she had a chance to perform her duty.

It would not be the last time racial prejudice affected Banks' career, but in each case, Banks encouraged the crowd to take her own example and stay happy, despite the challenges. "I'm the total custodian of my joy, because of people like you," she said. "You allow me to be me."