Photo courtesy of DoD
General of the Armies of the United States, John “Black Jack” Pershing, left, and Col. Harry Cootes, right, commander of Fort Myer, Va., review the Machine Gun Troop of the 10th Cavalry Regiment upon its posting to Fort Myer, Va., in 1931. The 10th were some of the first black troops to serve at Fort Myer, Va.
Editor’s note: Lauren Poindexter, a U.S. Army Public Affairs intern concludes our coverage of Black History Month with an interpretation and thoughts on key historical moments that contributed to the evolution of civil rights and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall "firsts" in that history. Lauren’s video project will be available on all official JBM-HH social media channels.
This year the U.S. Army celebrates Black History Month and its theme, "civil rights in America." After discovering a few significant historical moments that took place on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, I was inspired to create a video correlating to this theme.
JBM-HH is not only enriched with military history, but has contributed toward ground-breaking moments for civil rights in America: Buffalo Soldiers trained here; Fort Myer Elementary was the first school in the commonwealth of Virginia to integrate.
My video explores the evolution of civil rights on JBM-HH beginning with the pioneer arrival of the Buffalo Soldiers from Troop K of the 9th U.S. Cavalry May 25, 1891. Troop K arrived at Fort Myer under the command of Maj. Guy Henry. According to the Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum, these Soldiers were the first blacks to serve east of the Mississippi River. Henry fought for the troops to be stationed at Fort Myer.
Troop K proved they were capable Soldiers by performing routine garrison duties that included drills, parades and practice. In August 1893, Troop K served as escort to President Grover Cleveland during a special parade. According to the Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum, Troop K’s Soldiers were good saddle riders and complete masters of their horses. The Soldiers were professionals, who on a moment’s notice, could draw up in a line in front of the White House ready for either military action or to participate in a parade.
In 1931, the Scottsboro case revealed the unfair treatment of black civilians in the south. Later that year on Oct. 15, the Machine Gun Troop, 10th Cavalry arrived at Fort Myer under the command of Capt. Clyde D. Garrison and 1st Sgt. Howard Wilson. Post commander Col. Harry N. Cootes placed the 10th Cavalry in building 308. Today, the Directorate of Public Works occupies the building.
"Soldiers from the 10th Cavalry who were later interviewed spoke of segregated facilities such as the dining hall, Post Exchange and barber shop. Even though this era was characterized by discrimination and unfair treatment, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Machine Gun Troop worked hard to overcome adversity," according to the Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum.
It was motivational learning how the Soldiers conducted themselves with dignity while having to face challenges in society.
According to the Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum, the Soldier’s exceptional performance and fine talents were displayed during parades and horse shows, as well as their routine duties conducting burials at Arlington National Cemetery. The 10th Cavalry served at Fort Myer until 1949 until they were replaced by the 3d Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).
Executive Order No. 9981
Later, the military set precedence for civil rights in America when President Harry Truman issued Executive Order No. 9981 on July 26, 1948. The order stated that, "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."
Brown v. Board of Education
Six years later on May 17, 1954, a landmark case – Brown v. Board of Education – led to the desegregation of state public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that determined segregation is unconstitutional and specifically violated the 14th Amendment.
Although I attended and graduated from a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), I had a fair opportunity to attend any college in the nation thanks to this. Integration is so common now; I can’t imagine being told that I could not attend a school based on my race. This idea wasn’t always accepted.
Fort Myer Elementary School
After speaking with Kim Holien, retired JBM-HH historian, I learned that the Commonwealth of Virginia decided that a program of massive resistance would be a way to continue its segregated policies. The resistance consisted of the chartering of private schools.
But Fort Myer Elementary School took the initiative to honor this new law by becoming the first school to become racially integrated in the Commonwealth of Virginia Sept. 8, 1954, according to Holien. Fort Myer set an example for the nation and "paved the way for full integration in school systems," Holien said.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
Ten years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, as well as women. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public. This was a catalyst to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 which was promoted equal treatment of American workers.
Maj. General Harvey Williams
Three years later on June 16, 1975, Maj. Gen. Harvey Williams became the first African-American Commander of Fort Myer. When asked if he ever encountered racism as the commander, Williams said, "No, absolutely not. I know people have their feelings, but I was never able to sense any outrage or any dislike of the sort," he said during an interview for the Pentagram in 2012. "What Soldiers and their dependents wanted was a leader who was going to take an interest in their quality of life, and that’s what I did."
Reading that article reminded me of the Buffalo Soldiers who once endured segregation and how they paved a way for Williams.
Col. Fern O. Sumpter
JBM-HH once again made an impact on history July 17, 2012, when Col. Fern O. Sumpter assumed command of the joint base. This made her the first African-American woman to assume command here. Sumpter entered the military in 1983 when she joined the U.S. Army Reserves in Boston, Mass. This was the same year that civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson announced his intention to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, which made him the first African-American to make a serious bid for the presidency.
I helped out with protocol for the change of command ceremony for Col. Sumpter two years ago as a new U.S. Army intern. I didn’t know much about the military then, but I couldn’t stop thinking how awesome it was that an African-American woman was taking command. In my mind, she was equivalent to the first African-American woman president for this base. Since then, I have had the privilege to watch her in action; her kindness combined with her assertiveness has inspired me as a young African-American woman in the work place.
In short, Sumpter is proof that there is still room to contribute to not just African-American history, but JBM-HH history as well. She opened my eyes to the notion that I cannot rely on past leaders and historical achievements to fight for present day issues. I must carry that legacy and continue the fight to ensure civil rights in America are not jeopardized. Why? Because it is never too late to contribute to history; it’s never too late to make a difference.
After completing this video project (and article) I’ve realized that there are still controversial events occurring that leave minorities wondering if this country is still making efforts to protect civil rights in America. As an African-American I was touched by the boldness and bravery that has occurred on JBM-HH throughout the years and how this base and the military has set precedence to end segregation.