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As the nation celebrates African-American History Month, installations in Naval District Washington (NDW) follow suit with celebrations of their own to honor the contributions of African-Americans in the sea services throughout the history of the United States.

“National African-American History Month is a time to tell those stories of freedom won and honor the individuals who wrote them,” said President Barack Obama in his 2013 National African American History Month presidential proclamation. “We look back to the men and women who helped raise the pillars of democracy, even when the halls they built were not theirs to occupy. We trace generations of African-Americans, free and slave, who risked everything to realize their God-given rights. We listen to the echoes of speeches and struggle that made our Nation stronger, and we hear again the thousands who sat in, stood up, and called out for equal treatment under the law.”

African-Americans have been contributing to the defense of the United States since its inception, often fighting despite a lack of personal and civil rights. But like most Americans, a call to service and the desire for better prospects drove them to protect their nation before a change could come. Today, we pay homage to those who fought to defend freedom before it was theirs, fought injustice while they faced it in their own ranks, and liberated while others like them were still bound.

“African-American History Month is very important because it allows us to give pause and remember the sacrifices and struggles of those in the African-American community, but also to ignite interest in the history of the African-American community,” said Dr. Regina Akers, historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command. “The important thing to do is to take that interest past February 28th, and continue it through the year.”

Installations throughout NDW are celebrating African-American History Month with special events. Naval Support Facility Dahlgren will host an African-American History Month observance with guest speaker Rev. Lawrence Davies, former mayor of Fredericksburg, Va.; Naval Support Activity Annapolis and the United States Naval Academy have various events planned through the month of February including mentoring sessions by the Midshipmen Black Studies Group and a discussion about slaves in the War of 1812 hosted by historian Gene Smith; and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center will be holding an event featuring poetry readings and a Jazz performance by members of the U.S. Army Band.

Naval Support Activity Washington has permanent displays of the contributions of some African-American servicemembers featured in the National Museum of the United States Navy at the Washington Navy Yard. Among them are the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Seaman Joachim Pease for his actions aboard USS Kearsarge during the American Civil War; a gold medal for heroism presented by the African-American community of New York to Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate steamer in Charleston, S.C., and piloted it to the safety of the Union Fleet in 1862; and a portrait of Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate (MDV) Carl Brashear, the U.S. Navy’s first African American Master Diver and the first amputee to be recertified as a diver in the U.S. Navy.

“We’ve come a long way, and our services have come a long way, as well,” said Akers.

For more information about African American contributions to the U.S. Navy, visit www.history.navy.mil, go to “Resources and Research” and click “Diversity.”

This is part one of a two-part series on African-American History Month. Next week the Waterline will feature specific acts of heroic service by African-American servicemembers.