In honor of black history month, National Adjutant Daniel S. Wheeler spoke before The African American Consortium at the War Memorial in Baltimore on Feb. 27. In his speech, Wheeler expressed sentiments of praise for black servicemembers, noted their important contributions to military history and highlighted the struggles they've faced in gaining service honors equal to their non-colored brothers-in-arms.
Wheeler delivered keynote remarks to about 125 people in attendance. The event was part of a celebration put on by The African American Consortium, an organization of Legionnaires and Buffalo Soldier Association members that exists to recognize the contributions of African-American servicemembers.
Below is a transcript of Wheeler's speech:
"It is a great honor to be here among American heroes. I want to begin by thanking you, the African American Patriots Consortium, Inc., and the National Association for Black Veterans. You not only make events like this possible, but you also constantly remind us that black history is American history from the very beginning to today. The sacrifices of the Buffalo Soldier, the Harlem Hellfighters, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Marines of Montford Point, the integration of our armed forces and the black women who have served with honor and distinction are too important to be included as mere footnotes to be discussed only during Black History Month. They are the substance that helped mold America into the nation that we are today. One of the many things that sets us apart from other countries is that we acknowledge our history - the good, the bad and the ugly. There is no debate about it. The legacy of the African-American veteran, hard fought and hard won, made America richer for all of us, even as they paid a greater price than most to win their place in history.
"The American Legion believes that all veterans are special and, in many ways, unappreciated. Veterans are disproportionately homeless, unemployed and always have to fight the bureaucracy to get their well-earned benefits.
"But the African-American veteran, historically, has suffered even greater indignities. Simply put, the black veteran often loved America more than America loved her black veteran.
"Take Vernon Baker for example: a World War II veteran who was by any definition a remarkable officer in a racially-segregated Army. In April 1945, armed with a rifle and grenades, he destroyed four German machine gun nests and killed nine enemy soldiers. Yet, during that same period of our history, he was not welcomed in most hotels, restaurants and other public facilities.
"Typical of the times, and typical of the mindset of too many, instead of praise for his actions in Italy, Baker was chewed out by his white regimental commander because he wasn't wearing his steel pot when he returned from his heroic fire fight. Fifty-two years later, Vernon Baker, first lieutenant, U.S. Army, was finally awarded the Medal of Honor that he so richly deserved. Six other African-American World War II veterans were recognized with him on January 13, 1997, receiving the nation's highest honor after more than a half century of having their valor denied because of the color of their skin. Despite the injustices they endured, they were patriotic, god-fearing, family-loving, hard-working American veterans – and proud of it. It is on the shoulders of these great men that we stand today.
"Years before Gen. Colin Powell became the first African-American to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff there stood another general who paved the way. U.S. Air Force pilot Daniel "Chappie" James, a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, trained pilots for the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron during World War II. After flying 101 combat missions in P-51 Mustang and F-80 aircraft during World War II and the Korean War, Gen. James' service continued throughout the Vietnam War, and included the destruction of seven communist MiG-21s as part of Operation Bolo.
"Gen. Chappie James summed up his own patriotism when he said, "I've fought in three wars and three more wouldn't be too many to defend my country. I love America and as she has weaknesses or ills, I will hold her hand."
"The American Legion has long recognized some of the weaknesses that General James was referring to. In 1923 our national convention passed Resolution 407, which stated that groups fostering racial, religious or class strife were "un-American, a menace to our liberties," and "inconsistent with the ideals and purposes of The American Legion." It took a while for society to catch on – and it's a long road we still travel.
"As then, The American Legion believes today a veteran is a veteran, and we championed a GI Bill in 1944 that would include all veterans, even though some segregationists in Congress opposed giving equal education and unemployment benefits to black veterans of the 1940s.
"National Commander Clarence Hill has made minority outreach in The American Legion a priority. We need your help with this. A larger and more diverse American Legion is a better American Legion for all veterans and their families.
"I am proud that so many African-Americans continue to serve America in The American Legion and would be prouder to see even more. Black veterans are already a significant part of our history. With your support, we can make history together and continue to do great things for America's veterans, marching together in a common cause as brothers and sisters who share a common heritage of patriotism, courage, duty, respect, sacrifice, service for God and Country and for each other.