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.