JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —
African Americans have been serving in the United States military since the Revolutionary War, and have served in every U.S. war since. Although African Americans were able to serve in the military, they were often segregated to form units such as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Montford Point Marines. Segregation in the U.S. military officially ended in 1948, however, there were still sporadic incidents of segregation until the Korean War.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African American pilots in the Army Air Corps during World War II. According to Tuskegee Airmen Inc., these Airmen overcame racism and adversity to later become one of the most respected fighter groups in World War II. Their success proved African Americans could pilot airplanes and not only paved the way for integration in the military, but also for future African American service members.
From 1942-1949 approximately 20,000 African American Marines enlisted and attended segregated boot camp at Montford Point Camp, Jacksonville, North Carolina. These men fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and are known as the ‘Montford Point Marines.’
U.S. Army Pfc. Jubal W. Patterson (1924-2011), one of the Montford Point Marines, later went on to serve in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“We were fighting two wars,” said Patterson according to story written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Rachael A. Treon, Headquarters Marine Corps Communication Directorate, originally published January 31, 2020 on www.marines.mil.
“I was there fighting a war against the Japanese and fighting another war with my own country on how they treated blacks during that time,” said Patterson. “Let’s just say there was no homecoming parade in my neighborhood.”
According to Maj. Kimberly Champagne, 315th Force Support Squadron commander, and Maj. Michelle Law-Gordon, 628th Air Base Wing chaplain, it is important not only to know about units such as the Montford Point Marines and Tuskegee Airmen, but also to know about African American history in general.
“Black history is part of American history,” said Law-Gordon. “You can’t tell the history of America if you don’t tell this history of black Americans, because we are a part of that history. Black History Month gives me the opportunity to focus on the contributions of African Americans.”
Law-Gordon also said Black History Month reminds her that African Americans are still making history and are a part of the greater good of society. Additionally, Champagne stressed the importance of knowing where you come from because it motivates her to be better.
“It’s inspiring to know my heritage,” said Champagne. “That heritage tells me that I can go further. It tells me that I come from people who had nothing and still did things, like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. When I think about where they came from, and the opportunities I have today, there’s no excuse to do nothing.”
The Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that 43 percent of service members are racial or ethnic minorities. Champagne and Law-Gordon both agreed diversity is one of the military’s strengths.
“I think observance months, whether it black history, Hispanic history or any other race, are all important,” said Champagne. “We are a fighting force and Joint Base Charleston is one community made of all these diverse individuals. To me, recognizing all these cultures in the United States is huge. We all have a story, rich history and different experiences.”
Champagne and Law-Gordon both said there were times in the past that they encountered racism. Although Champagne said she hasn’t encountered racism often, she sees it as an opportunity to educate others.
“I work hard to reach people and bring out the best in them through something like [Black History Month events],” said Champagne. “My efforts really align with growing and developing Airmen. This is in part because I don’t want people to feel like I did that day [in my past]. Awareness, inclusion and all these things are part of why I chose to help lead this observance month.”
Champagne and Law-Gordon are both leading the JB Charleston Black History Month special observance committee. Black History Month events on JB Charleston include a Tuskegee Airmen Career Day, African Americans and the Right to Vote luncheon, a Black Worship Experience church service with the Charleston Southern University Gospel Choir, and an Invisible Voices: The African Diaspora in the Lowcountry panel with community members hosted by the 628th ABW historian.