Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Hinesville VA Clinic celebrates Black history
Each February, VAs across the country observe Black History Month to honor the gifts, talents and contributions made by African-Americans. Veterans and staff at the Hinesville VA Outpatient Clinic, part of the Charleston VA Medical Center, were in for a treat last Thursday when they gathered to celebrate Black History Month. Inspirational music played softly in the background as Tracey Nelson, Administrative Officer for the Hinesville clinic, greeted Veterans as they entered the room, most of them by name.
This year's program held a special place in the heart of Elisha Boyd, an Advanced Medical Support Assistant who planned this year's Black History celebration.
"Black History Month is just really exciting to me," Boyd said as she surveyed the event space in the moments before the program began. "It's an opportunity for the Veterans to learn more about African-American history, especially here in the Lowcountry. And really, it's just a great time for fellowship. I think that means a lot to people."
And an opportunity for fellowship and camaraderie it certainly was. In a unique take on what some might generally come to expect from a program of its kind, Boyd organized a decidedly intimate event where Veterans could both learn about Black history, and engage with the support staff who serve them every day.
In keeping with the year's Black History Month theme, "Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories," the program began with a video presentation relaying the history of African Americans in the region, including areas extending from Hinesville and Savannah, Georgia, to Charleston, South Carolina.
As the video concluded, every head turned when a voice near the front of the room proclaimed, "I am Onesimus."
It was the voice of Tony Kittrell, a Program Support Specialist at the Hinesville clinic. He began his monologue as the medically savvy slave who helped fight a smallpox epidemic in Boston in the 1700s. Larry Floyd, a Medical Support Assistant, followed with his engaging telling of the contributions of James Oglethorpe, a military leader and social reformer who was instrumental in establishing Georgia as a colony. Though Oglethorpe's ideals were ultimately not adopted, he used his position to try to prohibit slavery in Georgia in his attempt to found a classless society.
Next, the newly-formed and aptly-named "VA Choir," a group of staff members from across the clinic, treated the audience to a selection. Their harmonized voices lifted the room as Veterans joined in their a cappella rendition of Hezekiah Walker's "I Need You to Survive."
Soon all eyes were glued to the guest of honor--retired U.S. Armyf Lieutenant Colonel Daisy Jones. The civil rights advocate, minister and community leader stood before her fellow Veterans and the staff with a message of hope and encouragement. She shared why it is still important to embrace Black History Month, acknowledging both the contributions and the troubled history of the African Americans in the United States.
"Inspiration triggers the pursuit of outside dreams. We should continue to be inspired by the trials and triumphs of those who have gone before us," Jones declared. "Those who forget their track record are doomed to fail."
Jones shared a personal experience of racism that had occurred in her own career. Several years ago, during what began as a typical workday on post, Jones was approached by a Chief who disagreed with something she was doing. He became increasingly upset and made quite a scene of cursing at Jones and using racial epithets toward her in front of her staff. Unsurprisingly, news of the incident made its way to the Battalion Command Officer. Jones was summoned to his office where she realized that along the way, the story had been flipped and suddenly now Jones was the one who was being accused of making the disparaging remarks. Jones ended up receiving a harsh reprimand and being relegated to a less desirable position in the field.
Though she had maintained her poise in the face of her superior, Jones was devastated and sought the counsel of a high-ranking, African-American field officer on post. When she was done giving her account, the officer looked at her squarely and asked a seeminly simple question.
"Do you want to fight for your dignity, or do you want to fight for your career?"
Jones left his office without giving an answer, but it wasn't until then that she began to think back to the African American Servicemembers who had gone before her--the Buffalo soldiers; the Tuskegee Airmen; and the lesser known 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all-Black Women's Army Corps unit that had served in Germany during World War II.
The answer was right in front of her. She chose to fight for her dignity.
"In that moment, I remembered my forebears and the dignity they displayed even when circumstances were not ideal. They all saw beyond the human condition and still they chose to give all they had in service of their country," she says.
Jones moved on from the incident and remained steadfast in her commitment to serve. She worked her way back up to her previous position and soon surpassed it. Years later, while attending an advanced course, Jones came face to face with her old Battalion Commander. Upon seeing her, he immediately apologized for what had occurred years ago, acknowledging that he realized he'd been wrong.
When facing a difficult time in her career, Jones had been able to look back and remember those who came before her. It helped her put the situation into perspective. That, she says, is just one reason why it's important to never forget Black history.
As she thanked each Veteran for their service, the retired Army officer reminded them that their service was not done.
Jones concluded, "Every Veteran here can continue to giving someone hope. You can remind someone, especially a young person, that even though their circumstances may not always be ideal, they should still aspire to achieve their dreams."
A Brief History of Black History
Carter G. Woodson, a famed African-American scholar who had dedicated his career to African-American historical research, lobbied educational institutions to teach the history of African-Americans. In 1926, Woodson established Negro History Week, which he reserved as the second week of February to mark the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. Woodson's call to teach and celebrate Black history milestones eventually expanded to include the entire month of February. Fifty years later, Black History Month became officially recognized by the U.S. government.