Sgt. Maj. Christal Rheams and The Army Chorus perform “Glory” during the virtual Black History Month observance. Screenshot by Emily Mihalik

African Americans integral to national defense success

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has affected social gatherings, this year’s Black History month observance was not only held in a virtual environment, it was done jointly with the National Capital Region’s Equal Opportunity offices. This year’s theme “Black Family: Representation, identity and diversity” explores the spread of Black families across the United States.

Col. Chris Nylan, the Fort Meade, Maryland, garrison commander, opened the observance by explaining that in February 1926 Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black history, launched the precursor of Black History Month.

“February was chosen for the initial celebration to honor the births of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President (Abraham) Lincoln,” said Nylan. “Since 1976, every American president has designated February as Black History Month.”

The guest speaker for the virtual observance was Sgt. Maj. Mark Clark, the deputy chief of staff G-1 sergeant major. Clark talked about the contributions African Americans have made to the defense of the nation.

“I think it’s important that we view this history not only through the filter of an African American history celebration, but as an integral part of American history,” explained Clark. “Much of American history has been shaped by our military. There has been no war fought by or with the United States in which African Americans did not serve proudly.

“In April 1775, African Americans fought at the Battle of Concord (and) African Americans crossed the Delaware River with Gen. George Washington.”

Clark added that approximately 5,000 Black Soldiers served in the Continental Army.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which declared that former slaves could join the armed forces, began a national policy of recruiting and organizing African American regiments, said Clark.

“In World War I more than 350,000 Black Americans served in desegregated units,” Clark said. “During World War II, more than a million African Americans (were) in uniform. Although they fought with distinction, they returned home to a segregated America. Black Americans were still treated as second-class citizens and not permitted to drink from the same water fountains or sit at the same lunch counters.

“Gen. Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff once said, ‘African Americans were always willing to serve the nation that was not yet willing to serve them.’”

Clark pointed out that in 1948 when the segregated Army became a thing of the past, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which called for equal opportunity for all members of the armed forces.

“Soon the segregation of American society as a whole would begin to crumble,” he said. “Today, African Americans make up about 19% of our Army and serve at every level of military leadership.

“The Army simply could not accomplish its mission without the skill and dedication of all of its members. We found our true strength in our ability to bring together people who are different races, cultures and faith who share common values of duty, honor, selfless service, loyalty and respect. Diversity is not about what makes us different, it’s about how we can make a difference.”

The observance ended with Sgt. Maj. Christal Rheams and the Army Chorus singing “Glory” from the film “Selma,” while a slideshow highlighted the history of African Americans in uniform throughout the nation’s history.

Pentagram Editor Catrina Francis can be reached at

By Catrina Francis

Pentagram Editor