Reflections on Black History Month

“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around us in awareness.” James Thurber
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Edmund Burke

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am now and forever will be a History Geek. I devour history books and have since I was in second grade. I plan to put a request in my will for family members to throw some of my favorite history books plus chocolate chip cookies into my coffin so I have something to do while waiting for the powers that be to determine whether my final destination will be Heaven or Hell.

Harriet Tubman

I get a tremendous rush when I discover some new fact. A couple of nights ago I was watching a program on the Smithsonian channel about a female Samurai in ancient Japan. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Japan and had never heard about this before. I researched it and discovered there were other female Samurais, and they kicked butt. A number of years ago, a close friend asked me to speak at her retirement ceremony to be held at the Women’s Memorial Monument in the Washington DC area. While waiting for the ceremony to start, I wandered around looking at the exhibits; Harriet Tubman was being featured. I thought I knew everything about her, but was surprised to learn in addition to being a nurse and a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, she was recognized as the first women to lead troops into combat. The troops called her “General.” After the war, she received a military pension and when she died a military funeral with honors.

I can only speak for myself, but studying history educates and inspires me. Studying the accomplishments of women and African Americans, two groups left out of the history books of most classes I took during my formal education, have been particularly inspiring. There have been many times during my professional life when I encountered a major challenge and thought my career was over and didn’t think I had the strength to continue. It was at times like this that I would do two things. First, I would pray to God to give me the strength and wisdom needed to deal with the situation; second, I would pick up a history book and study the lives of famous people.

I discovered some amazing individuals through my self study program. There was the woman who shared my birthday, though she was born prematurely — a few years earlier in 1940. She was a sickly child and early on struggled with scarlet fever and pneumonia. She also contracted polio at age four, and doctors said she would never walk again. For several years, her family had to massage her legs several times a day, and she wore a brace until she was nine. When she was in 8th grade, her sister tried out for the high school track team — and she decided to try out too. Her sister made the team, but she did not. Her father told the coach the girls were a package deal: either both girls made it or neither would participate. She wasn’t a very good runner, but she kept at it. She had better luck at basketball, setting the state record for scoring while leading her team to the state championships.

She didn’t give up on running track, though. In one instance, she participated in a meet and lost every race, but one person attending — legendary coach Ed Temple of Tennessee State University — thought she had potential. He invited her to attend one of his summer camps and a year later she won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics. Four years later, she competed in the 1960 Olympics, and Wilma Rudolph became the first women in history to win three Gold medals. How could I not be inspired by her story? She had even gotten pregnant in high school — a show-stopper and scandal for women in that era. Her family helped her take care of the baby, and Wilma was able to attend college and continue running for the track team.

Rudolph winning the women’s 100 meter dash at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

History is a great teacher, and I think a lot of the problems we have today could be solved more easily if people took the time to learn more. A few years ago, I was relaxing on my couch and reading a good book; I had the TV on a news channel for background noise. At one point, a news report on the upcoming world soccer championship games caused me to sit up and pay closer attention. Germany was the host that year, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad planned to attend. This was problematic because the Iranian President was on record for calling the Holocaust a myth. In Germany, it’s against the law to say the Holocaust didn’t happen; if President Ahmadinejad did attend, the Germans might arrest him. One of the organizations I belonged to was sponsoring a German exchange student for the school year. When I asked him about the law, he said Germany wanted to ensure that something like the Holocaust would never happen again. One way to achieve that was to first ensure people knew the history and background of the Holocaust; another was to make sure no one could deny or sugar coat the events and what led to up to it.

I found this remarkable and could not help but compare how the history of slavery and the Civil War has been handled in the U.S. The cause of the Civil War is still being hotly debated over 150 years after that conflict ended. According to a poll by Pew Research Center taken at the 150th anniversary of the conflict, “There is no consensus among the public about the primary cause of the Civil War, but more (48%) say that the war was mainly about states’ rights than say it was mainly about slavery (38%). Another 9% volunteer that it was about both equally.”

This is interesting since most historians are in agreement that the fight over the slavery issue was the motivating factor. During a 2011 discussion on PBS, Preisident of Harvard University’s Drew Gilpin Faus stated: “Research has shown pretty decisively that, when the various states announced their plans for secession, they uniformly said that the main motivating factor was to defend slavery.” Texas also was pretty direct when stating its reasons at the time:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

Why is this important? We are still dealing today with the ramifications of slavery, the Civil War, and an era of Jim Crow laws. I’ll share some of my professional story to illustrate what I’m talking about. When I was 5 years old I was watching a war movie with my Father called Wing and a Prayer. It was about the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor but before the Battle of Midway. During one of the scenes, the actor Don Ameche gave the navy pilots and intelligence briefing before the climatic battle scene. I turned to my father and said, “Daddy that’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.” My father smiled and said, “This is America. You can be whatever you want to be!” This was 1955. In 1973 I became the first woman in Naval History to do just that — 20 years before it became a common occurrence.

Gail Harris at the 2012 Ailes Apprentice Class Graduation.

I didn’t realize it, but at the time, the Navy was not a very welcoming place for African Americans. Many in the Navy bought into the negative stereotypes of African Americans; as a result, although there were some exceptions, black males were primarily restricted to jobs as cooks. The few that were allowed to perform jobs other than cooks found their promotion chances severely restricted. Black sailors were not buying into the “inferiority crap” and started to demand that the Navy open all jobs to them, but much of the Navy establishment didn’t agree. This situation culminated with race riots on aircraft carriers. Through all of this turmoil, a remarkable thing happened: in 1970, three years before I joined, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was appointed Chief of Naval Operations. He was a visionary leader and is known as one of the most influential naval leaders of the 20th century. He ushered in much social change, and made a major effort to recruit women and minorities paving the way for many like me.

Part of the way he approached change was to make it mandatory that everyone took a course in race relations. African Americans had served with distinction in every war in our nation’s history, and he used these training sessions to educate Navy personnel. Many, including myself, found these sessions very painful. We all joked that if you weren’t a racist before the training, you were when you finished. The training was designed to make you confront your prejudices, and some of the discussions became quite heated; one in particular stands out for me today. Some of my white co-workers angrily asked why African Americans didn’t shake hands when greeting each other like everyone else. They asked, “What is this greeting each other by touching fists about?” Sometimes today when I see men of all races greeting each other with a fist pump, I smirk.

The end result of all of this was to level the playing field for African Americans in the Navy. Knowledge of black history changed many minds and encouraged many in the Navy to keep an open mind and give African Americans a chance to prove themselves in the workplace. There were some rocky times, but the end result speaks for itself. When I retired in 2001 as a Captain, I was the highest ranking African American female in the Navy. In 2014, another African American, Admiral Michelle Howard, became the first women in naval history to become a four star Admiral. I would say the Navy’s approach worked.

Today there’s a lot of talk in the media over “fake news.” This is not something new to African Americans. We had to fight to disprove stories and beliefs that we were not inferior and have earned the right to be full citizens and all that implies. My family never bought into those theories that African Americans were an inferior race. Over the years as I studied history and watched history unfolding, I noticed that people who believed that because of your race or sex you could not do something were always wrong.

Tuskegee Airmen

They said black people could not play baseball, and then came Jackie Robinson. They said black people could not fly airplanes, and then came the Tuskegee Airmen. (Heck if you look back further, an African American, Eugene Jacques Bullard, flew with the French Air Force during WWI. He wanted to fly with the U.S. Army but they wouldn’t take him.) And They said you couldn’t go to college, couldn’t play college or professional sports, and couldn’t be doctors or lawyers — you name it. But They were always proven wrong.

I’ll conclude with one of my favorite “They” stories. Frederick Douglass and others lobbied hard for Blacks to serve in the Army during the Civil War. Some were concerned if they armed former slaves, loyal Border States would secede. Others felt black soldiers would not be as brave or skilled as white soldiers. Lincoln was finally convinced and nearly 200,000 African Americans fought in the conflict; 16 won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

During my 28 years of service, I knew I stood on the shoulders of many who came before me. I honor all of these individuals. The United States of America is truly the greatest nation in the world. As my father told me long ago, this is a country where the majority believe, and dreams are for everyone — not just a privileged few.

In 1973, Captain Gail Harris (March ’82), United States Navy (Retired), broke a 200-year-old tradition by becoming the first woman in Naval History to serve as an Intelligence Officer in a Navy combat job, which occurred 20 years before federal laws changed and made it a common occurrence. At her retirement in December 2001, she was the highest ranking African American female in the Navy. Her 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. Since her retirement, she has worked in the Defense Industry as an Intelligence Subject Matter Expert, writes a blog for Foreign Policy Association, hosts a weekly R&B radio show on KDUR, and is writing a Broadway musical. Her book, A Woman’s War, was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for 2010 by the Foreign Policy Association. She is a Senior Fellow for George Washington Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and a Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own.

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