Category Archives: Black History Month

Racial Pioneer reached highest level of recognition

Ben Harshaw started his long and varied service to our country during World War II serving in a segregated Corps of Engineers unit. During three years in a Heavy Equipment Battalion he rose to the rank of Technical Sergeant and left the U.S. Army on his birthday in December of 1945.

That was the beginning of what would become a 40-year career of Federal service in Little Rock that saw great social changes in the Corps and across the country. Harshaw became one of those special people who helped bring about that social change.

Ben Harshaw in 1978 when he received a 30-year service pin. He went on to retire in 1993 after more than 45 years of total federal service.

After working a variety of jobs after his Army discharge, Harshaw returned to his high school and attended Dunbar Junior College in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Dunbar Junior College for African-American students was housed in one wing of Dunbar High School. The college was operated by the Little Rock School District and was in operation from 1930 until 1955.

In 1952, Harshaw returned to the Corps of Engineers and began his career with the Little Rock District as an auto equipment servicer in the Operations Division. He had many responsibilities while working in the motor pool but one of the most challenging requirements was delivering equipment to job sites or project offices across the district. Not that it was challenging for him to drive or make the deliveries, but because of the racial tensions and attitudes prevalent across the district during the 1950s. Many of these delivery trips required an overnight stay for white employees due to the distance traveled and hours worked. But for Harshaw, a black employee, the trips meant long days and driving into the night to get back to Little Rock with minimal stops because of concerns for his safety.

Harshaw was transferred to the General Services Administration in 1958 along with the transfer of all motor pool operations, but he was impacted by a reduction-in-force action just four months after the transfer. That forced him to make a career change and become a laborer in the district’s Office Services Branch. From there he held several positions before transferring to the Data Processing Center as a peripheral computer equipment operator in May 1969.

Never afraid of a new challenges, Harshaw was a dedicated employee who eagerly learned the operations duties of each new computer system installed at the district. He worked the late shift for many years which required him to work late in to the night or early hours of the morning to pull back reports at the end of each month. His dedication to duty ensured everyone in the district had vital reports needed to accomplish their mission and keep the district operating efficiently.

According to a former supervisor, Harshaw was very dedicated and loyal during the 22 years she had worked with him in the Information, Integration and Implementation Branch.

“He was always willing to do extra tasks and work (extra) hours to accomplish the mission,” said Holly Hartung. “He would spend time in the evening reading manuals to learn more about the systems we were operating.”

Mr. Harshaw not only excelled working with computers, he also shined when it came to working with people. He was a dedicated employee who spent a career helping others. He began his federal service working in a building that had separate water fountains for blacks and whites. This did not deter him from working with his fellow white and black coworkers. In fact, he was a pioneer in the area of race relations in the Little Rock District. He was one of the first Equal Employment Opportunity counselors in the district and he took this opportunity very seriously.

He worked tirelessly to encourage black high school and college students to apply for jobs with the Corps and for positions at other federal agencies. He also served as a mentor to these young students as well as other black employees. Throughout his career, Harshaw worked to improve race relations and encouraged black employees to stay with the Corps and strive to achieve higher positions.

During more than 40 years of service to the Little Rock District, and over 45 years of total federal service, Ben Harshaw retired in January 1993. But that was not the end of the story.

In 2003, Ben Harshaw was inducted into the Little Rock District’s Gallery of Distinguished Employees – the highest honor given to retired civilian employees of the district. Not only was he a pioneer in computer systems for the district, he was an African American mentor and pioneer in race relations at a time when black employees faced extreme challenges both at work and in the streets. And he faced all these challenges with grace and determination. At his induction ceremony he simply said…

“I deeply appreciate receiving such an award. It really means a lot to be honored by my peers.” Many in attendance at that ceremony probably did not see themselves as peers to Mr. Harshaw, but then who among us could match his long and storied career.

*Editor’s Note – this story was compiled from historical articles and documents. Ben H. Harshaw passed away January 18, 2009 and is buried in the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery.

AR State Veterans Cemetery register: Harshaw, Ben H., b. 12/15/1918, d. 01/18/2009, Section G, Site 90, US ARMY, TSGT, WORLD WAR II.

African Americans in the U.S. Army

By Brig. Gen Paul E. Owen, Commander, Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

February is Black History Month across the Nation. Since 1976, the President has officially designated February as the time for this annual observance, which dates back to the early 1900s. In 1926, it was scheduled for the second week in February to coincide with the birthdates of President Abraham Lincoln and African American orator and statesman Frederick Douglass.

The theme for 2018 is “African Americans in Times of War,” commemorating the centennial of the end of the First World War in 1918, and highlighting the service and sacrifice of African Americans during wartime, from the Revolutionary War to present.

For Army soldiers and civilians, the theme this year has a special significance, as we honor those African Americans who have served so bravely in the defense of our Nation. We stand in the shadows of the courage and devotion to duty of African American soldiers such as the slaves who joined the Continental Army in exchange for the promise of freedom; the Buffalo Soldiers; the Tuskegee Airmen; the “Triple Nickels,” the all-black airborne unit in World War II, and so many others.

In fact, more than 350,000   African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. About 125,000 served overseas in World War II, leading President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948. Today more than 195,000 African Americans—about 19 percent– serve in the Army’s Total Force. They serve in almost every specialty and at every level. Additionally, almost 40,000 Department of the Army civilians are African American. Within USACE, African Americans number more than 3000, or about 10 percent of the USACE workforce.

The month is about much more than statistics and numbers, however. It is about our history as a Nation, our values as Americans, and the outstanding contributions of those who often overcame tremendous odds to succeed. It is also about our future, as we seek to increase the numbers of African Americans in STEM pathways and careers to help ensure the continued prosperity and success of our Nation.

I encourage each of you to learn more about the African American heritage that helped shape our country. Take some time to study and reflect on those who have served our Army and our Nation with great honor and distinction, building a legacy of courage that surely will inspire future generations.