Since the inception of what is now the United States of America. African Americans have played a major role in the history of this new nation, shaping world politics, diplomacy, and government as well as being appreciated for enormous contributions in civil rights, science, music, art, and literature. Although few can deny the centrality of African Americans in the evolution of American history, it is the hard work of many who sacrificed, suffered, and gave their lives not just for this country but for the global community.
Black History month was officially acknowledged in 1976 by President Gerald R. Ford. President Ford proclaimed that “ in celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from the recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every endeavor throughout our history.” Since that proclamation, almost 40 years ago Black History Month has stood as a time to honor the accomplishments of African Americans that have helped to shape this nation.
Daryl Turner, President
Portland Police Association
RONALD E. McNAIR
Physicist, Astronaut (1950-1986)
Ronald McNair was one of the astronauts killed 25 years ago on Jan. 28, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. As his brother recalls, McNair’s life was all about exploring boundaries — and exceeding them.
McNair was only the second African-American to visit space. He’d been there once before, aboard a Challenger mission in 1984. On that trip, he played his saxophone while in orbit.
As his older brother, Carl, recalls, McNair started dreaming about space in South Carolina, where he grew up. And he wanted to study science. But first, he needed to get his hands on some advanced books. And that was a problem.
“When he was 9 years old, Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library,” Carl tells his friend Vernon Skipper. The library was public, Carl says — “but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959.”
“So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him — because they were white folk only — and they were looking at him and saying, you know, ‘Who is this Negro?’
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- NPR: Astronaut’s Brother Recalls A Man Who Dreamed Big
- Blackpast.org: McNair, Ronald E.
- Biography: Ronald McNair
VERNON J. BAKER
Military Leader (1919-2010)
In 1941, Vernon Baker was assigned to the segregated 270th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division, the first black unit to go into combat in WWII. Baker, one of the most decorated black soldiers in the Mediterranean Theater, earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Cross. In 1996, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
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- Biography: Vernon J. Baker
- PBS: American Valor Story – Vernon Baker
- VIDEO: Vernon Baker, Medal of Honor, WWII
LT. GEN. NADJA WEST
U.S. Army Lt. General and U.S. Army Surgeon General (b. 1961)
Nadja Y. West is a United States Army lieutenant general and the 44th U.S. Army Surgeon General and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command. West is the first black Army Surgeon General, and was the first black female, active-duty, major general and the first black female major general in Army Medicine. West is also the first Army black female lieutenant general. She is the highest ranking female to have graduated from the United States Military Academy.
West was an orphan but was adopted at two years old into a family in the District of Columbia with eleven other adopted children. She graduated high school at the Academy of the Holy Names in Silver Spring, Maryland. In 1982, West obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and a Doctorate of Medicine from George Washington University School of Medicine in 1988.
West’s historic promotion to be the first black female major general took place on April 19, 2013. Of her promotion, West said, “I never really thought about that part. My parents taught me to work hard and be the best I can be and things will work out. I’m just really honored. If anything at all, I hope I can be an inspiration to any one or any group that has not seen themselves in certain positions. We all want to see people who look like us doing certain things to give us inspiration. Hopefully, I can inspire someone to be able to say, ‘I can do that.'”
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- The New York Times: Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West on the Power of Empathy
- Army Times: The Army’s first black, female 3-star was inspired to serve by her father – and Star Trek
- CNN VIDEO: From orphan to Army surgeon general
- African Americans in the U.S. Army
FRANK E. PETERSON, JR.
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. General (1932-2015)
Lieutenant General Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first black general in the U.S. Marine Corps, was born in 1932 in Topeka, Kansas. He earned his Bachelor of Science in 1967. He received a Master’s in International Affairs in 1973. Both degrees came from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He also attended the Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia and the National War College in Washington, D.C.
Frank Petersen joined the Navy as an electronics technician in 1952. Motivated by the story of Jesse Brown, the first African American naval aviator who was shot down and killed over North Korea, Petersen applied for and was accepted into the Naval Aviation Cadet Corps. In 1952 Petersen completed his training with the Corps and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He became the first black pilot in the Marine Corps.
Petersen served as a fighter pilot in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 1953 he flew sixty-four combat missions in Korea and earned six air medals as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1968, while serving in Vietnam, he became the first African American in the Marines or the Navy to command a tactical air squadron. He flew nearly 300 missions during the Vietnam War. In 1968, General Petersen earned the Purple Heart for his actions while flying a mission in North Vietnam.
In 1979 Frank Petersen became the first black general in the Marine Corps. In 1986 he was named the first black commander of Quantico Marine Base in Virginia.
Gen. Petersen served thirty-eight years in the Navy, including thirty-six as a Marine. He retired as a lieutenant general in 1988. At the time of his retirement, Gen. Petersen had earned twenty medals for bravery in combat. He was also the senior ranking pilot in the Marine Corps and Navy from 1985 to 1988. General Petersen worked with several education and research organizations during and after his time in the military. These include the Tuskegee Airmen headquarters and the National Aviation Research and Education Foundation. He was also vice president of Dupont Aviation.
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