From American's Revolutionary War and the death of Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, through the Buffalo Soldiers of the West, to the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq there have always been black soldiers proudly wearing the military uniforms of America's armed services. That service to their nation received special recognition Nov. 11 at Alexandria's Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St.
"We are here to honor and celebrate veterans and, particularly, African American veterans who have served and are serving their country. Many think of veterans as only those who have fought in a war. Veterans are all those who have served," said Col. Gerald K. Johnson, U.S. Army retired, in opening the museum's Veterans Day ceremonies last Saturday to an overflow audience.
"Those who stayed home — veterans' families — also served. And, they should also be honored. We will always remember that all gave some and some gave all," he said.
Joining the museum in sponsoring the two hour event were the Alexandria Branch of the NAACP, Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery, and the Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage. "This is always a special occasion for the NAACP," said H. Howard Woodson III, Esq., president of the Alexandria Chapter.
Lending to the poignancy of the event, Woodron read a long list of numbers after which he explained that they represented the ages of those killed in Iraq as recently published in the Washington Post. "They [those killed] did not have the chance to fulfill their life dreams," Woodson said. "As we reflect on honoring our veterans, we need to reflect on how to help them achieve their goals in life."
Featured speaker of the ceremony was Lt. General Michael D. Rochelle, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1, U.S. Army. "Our nation today is engaged in what has been termed "The Long War" — the global war on terrorism," he said.
Rochelle quoted abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, concerning the right of black men to wear the uniform and defend their country. "Many of these soldiers who fought for America fought for rights that they themselves were denied at home," Rochelle said.
"Our success story is an American success story," Rochelle said citing the fact that many returning black soldiers from World War II became "the school principals, doctors, lawyers and leaders of the ’50s and ’60s."
Referring to the Black History Museum, Rochelle said, "The location for this event could not be more appropriate. Here in Northern Virginia we are reminded of the struggle for freedom. And, as a people, of all races, we know that freedom is not free."
ONE OF THE MOST enlightening presentations of the ceremony came from Lt. Col. Cynthia Gibbs, U.S. Air Force retired, who gave a special presentation on the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. In reviewing the requirements of those who serve as guards at the tomb and the symbolisms of their actions she revealing the following:
* Guards take exactly 21 steps in each crossing. They then wait 21 seconds before each turn. Those actions symbolizes the 21 gun salute fired in tribute to the fallen.
* Guard's wear wet white gloves to better grip their rifle. That rifle is always carried on the shoulder away from the tomb as they march back and forth.
* There are three sets of guards on each shift that alternate every 30 or 60 minutes depending on the time of year and day. They must be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches and are grouped in units for a uniform look. They must be in superb physical condition and
* Those chosen must commit to a two year stint as guards. They must memorize 17 pages of information about the Tomb and Arlington Cemetery as well as the burial location of 300 famous individuals throughout the cemetery.
"The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year no matter what the weather. During a recent hurricane they were offered the opportunity to forgo that. However, they respectfully declined and kept marching," Gibbs said.
"It takes a special kind of person to become a guard at the tomb. They agree to live by the rules of the guards for the rest of their lives. If they fail to do that they must return the special lapel pin they are awarded as a guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns," she explained.
Adding to the mystique of a burial site for unknowns was Lillie
Finklea, co-founder of The Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery. This site, located at the intersection of Church and South Washington streets in Alexandria, is scheduled to become a memorial to the 1,879 freed slaves who served the Union cause during the Civil War.
As noted in the "Freedmen's Cemetery" brochure, "Most freedpeople were destitute by any standard. Among an undernourished, ill-housed population with inadequate health care, death was no stranger. After more than 1,000 freedpeople had perished in the Alexandria area, the town desperately needed a new burying ground for them."
Today that site is occupied by a Mobil Service Station and several office buildings. "The City is in the final process of acquiring both properties. We should own both properties by the end of this year," Finklea told the audience.
"The City plans to demolish the buildings in the spring of 2007," she said. Alexandria Archeology will begin their investigation in the late spring and continue through the Autumn 2008, according to Finklea. Construction of the memorial park is expected to commence in late 2009, according to Finklea.
ROUNDING OUT the program was a message from Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R). A native Alexandrian and veteran, he acknowledged that his daughter recently returned from military service in Iraq.
"We have learned throughout the history of our nation that freedom is not free. We need to put the goals of America first — not the things that divide us," McDonnell said.
Throughout the program there were musical selections by Vanessa Hester, executive committee, NAACP, and Dr. F.J. Pepper, husband of Alexandria Council member and former vice mayor Redella "Del" Pepper, who was in attendance along with Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille.
In a final tribute to black Americans who have served in America's armed services throughout its history, Dunn cited the following facts:
* 180,000 black soldiers fought in the Civil War. They saw action in more than 400 engagements. There were 900 black seamen in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.
* 34 black service personnel have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Bringing the event to a conclusion, Col. Ethel Underwood, U.S Air Force retired chief, Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committee, NAACP, urged those present to remember the sacrifices of America's veterans. Reverend James Buck, Ebenezer Baptist Church, offered both the invocation and benediction.