Make it More Than Just Another Black History Month

By Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command,

African American/Black History Monthis one of the nine commemorative months celebrated from February to November to honor the contributions of those people previously neglected or marginalized in United States History. National, local, community, Internet and multi-media programs will pay tribute to and share the history of that group.

The theme for African American/Black History Month 2016 is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memory.” President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, issued a proclamation encouraging the American public to plan events.  During his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention then Senator Obama said “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s the United States of America.” Unfortunately, traditional United States History has instead focused on white men, a percentage of the population.  In recent decades, textbooks and teaching materials have become more inclusive but more work is needed.  There should be more focus on all who contributed so much to our nation’s history and sacrificed so much to obtain and retain their rights, and African American History Month provides us an opportunity to do so.

To properly apply the 2016 theme to African Americans in the Navy, hallowed ground would begin with James Forten in the American Revolutionary War. Though denied their rights, blacks continued to fight with honor in the 19th century and thereafter. They stood by their country even when their nation did not stand by them:

  • Participated in the United States’ victories in the War of 1812 including the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813
  • 18,000 African Americans served on most of the Union Navy’s 600 ships; eight of them earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.
  • Blacks Sailors perished when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor.
  • In and out of combat during the two world wars, the Cold War and again in the Persian Gulf War
  • Seaman Recruit Lakiba Nicole Palmer, one of the two women killed in the October 12, 2000 terrorist strike against the USS Cole.
  • Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001
  • The Global War On Terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Operation Inherent Resolve, Iraq and Syria Operations to against ISIL
Seaman Recruit Lakiba Nicole Palmer

Seaman Recruit Lakiba Nicole Palmer

This month strive to learn about the less known outstanding men and women in the United States Navy. For example, four black nuns treated the wounded aboard USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first hospital ship in 1862.  Who were these women and what motivated them? There were 14 blacks among the 11,000 female yeoman in World War I.  Ships Cook Third Class Doris Miller for example is well known but what are the names of the other three African American Navy Cross recipients?  Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr.’s outstanding career is marked by many firsts including the first African American promoted to flag rank. Who was the first African American promoted to four-star rank and how many have followed him? The movie “Men of Honor” introduced Mater Chief Boatswain Carl Brashear to the world but what about John Henry Dick Turpin, survivor of USS Maine and a World War I veteran?

Photo #: NH 89471 John Henry ("Dick") Turpin, Chief Gunner's Mate, USN (retired) (1876-1962).

Photo #: NH 89471 John Henry (“Dick”) Turpin, Chief Gunner’s Mate, USN (retired) (1876-1962).

What African American women were promoted to flag rank before and after Vice Chief of Naval Operations Michelle J. Howard?  Take some time to research the career of Fleet Master Chief April D. Beldo who achieved a rank few reach.

USS Red Rover (1862-1865) Photographed on the Western Rivers during the Civil War, with two rowing boats alongside. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

USS Red Rover (1862-1865) Photographed on the Western Rivers during the Civil War, with two rowing boats alongside. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

You may be making a presentation or some relative of yours will have to do a project during this month. Why not consider one of the notable African American in the United States Navy. You have more than 240 years from which to choose. Whatever you decide to do, hopefully your exercise will inspire both you and your audience. Make it more than just another required exercise.  Make it more than just another African American History Month.