Pentagon exhibit honors military contributions of African Americans

Pentagon exhibit honors military contributions of African Americans
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kordell Waklatski serves as a tour guide as President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley visit the Pentagon exhibit honoring the military service of African Americans, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. Photo credit Lisa Ferdinando/DoD

African Americans have served valiantly in military service, from the colonial times to present day. Their service has been honored with a Pentagon exhibit that showcases their triumphs and struggles, as well as the injustices committed against them.

The exhibit, spanning a corridor of the Pentagon, is titled "If We Must Fight; African Americans in Defense of Our Nation." President Joe Biden visited the corridor last year, shortly after becoming president.

Podcast Episode
Eye on Veterans
Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy the cure for TBIs? A suicide solution?
Listen Now
Now Playing
Now Playing

The corridor honors the "long history of Black Americans fighting for this country, even when their contributions were not always recognized or honored appropriately," the president said at the time.

The exhibit tells the story in the broader political, social, cultural and economic context, explains the curator of the exhibit, and subject matter expert, retired Army Col. Krewasky A. Salter, PhD.

Showing the whole story, the tragedies and the triumphs, gives the viewer [an] important context into the larger question of "why," he said.

"I want people when they go through the corridor. . . to get a comprehensive story and hopefully, they will be inspired," Salter said. "And also, not only see that African Americans have served and always served but so did all people of different races and ethnic groups and women throughout history."

The exhibit includes modern-day milestones with the first black commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama; and the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, who also went on to become the first black U.S. secretary of state.

Current Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is featured in a photo when he was an Army general overseeing military operations in theater with then-Lt. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks and Lt. Gen. Dennis L. Via.

These are all powerful examples of the incredible contributions of African Americans in military service to the nation, says project manager retired Army Col. Norvel "Rock" Dillard.

This rich and accomplished history includes men, women, civilians and families, he adds.

It includes the free and enslaved who fought in the colonial wars and the American Revolution; the black Union regiments that fought for their own freedom in the Civil War; the courageous and ground-breaking service of African Americans in World War I, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The Buffalo soldiers; the Tuskegee Airmen; the Montford Point Marines; the Navy's first commissioned black officers, known as the ‘Golden Thirteen'; Medal of Honor recipients; and the African American women who served in World War II in Navy WAVES, Coast Guard SPARS and the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, later the Women's Army Corps, are all featured.

But as African Americans made incredible achievements, and fought valiantly in wars, they faced terrible injustices and their own freedom was not fully realized, Dillard said. The exhibit shows the tragedies of slavery, Jim Crow racism, segregated military units and the harsh and unequal treatment of blacks in America.

The exhibit is extremely powerful because it tells the whole story in context of American history, according to the chief historian with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Erin R. Mahan, PhD.

It is meant to show the truth and make people uncomfortable, she said, adding, "it's that connection that makes the corridor more relatable and ultimately more meaningful, in my view."

The corridor was done in consultation with the historians of all the military services, according to exhibit designer, Kelly Guerrero with the Office of the Secretary of Defense Graphics Office.

Guerrero sought to include content to create a connection with the visitors.

"In exhibits, I want the viewer to see themselves or see their own family members," he said, adding he wants people to somehow identify with the content as more than just a distant historical event.

The current corridor is a complete renovation of the original African American in Defense of our Nation Corridor that was dedicated 25 years ago on Feb. 19, 1997, as the brainchild of Claiborne Haughton who is also featured on the wall as one of the first Black DOD charter members of the Senior Executive Service, notes Dillard. The grand opening for this revamped exhibit was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, he says, but organizers hope to have a formal opening someday.

Those with Pentagon access can find the exhibit on the second floor, corridor 6A of the Pentagon.

Dillard encourages all Pentagon personnel to stop by, learn and be inspired by the incredible contributions of African Americans in service to the nation.