‘A Slap in the Face’: Black Veterans on Bases Named for Confederates


WASHINGTON — When Timothy Berry was recruiting black students for West Point, where he served as class president in 2013, he often reflected on his senior year, when he lived in the Robert E. Lee barracks. It bothered him then; it bothers him now.

“I was trying to tell black and brown students that they would have a home there,” said Mr. Berry, who served as an Army captain with the 101st Airborne Division from 2013 to 2018. “It sent a very strong mixed message.”

For many black service members, who make up about 17 percent of all active-duty military personnel, the Pentagon’s decision to consider renaming Army bases bearing the names of Confederate officers seems excruciatingly overdue. Generations of black service members signed up for the military to defend the values of their country, only to be assigned to bases named after people who represent its grimmest hour.

“It is really kind of a slap in the face to those African-American soldiers who are on bases named after generals who fought for their cause,” said Jerry Green, a retired noncommissioned officer who trained at Ft. Bragg, N.C., which is named for a Confederate general, Braxton Bragg. “That cause was slavery.”

There are 10 major Army installations named for generals who led Confederate troops — all in the former states of the Confederacy — as well as many streets and buildings on military academy campuses that are among at least 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces in the United States.

The push to rename military installations and place names is not new, and it is one that black service members and veterans, as well as groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have largely pursued.

The movement this week seemed to attract a growing consensus, including among former senior military officials of all races, before President Trump declared on Wednesday that he would block any of those 10 bases from being renamed.

A petition by the liberal group VoteVets received over 20,000 signatures in 24 hours urging the military to ban Confederate symbols and rename Army bases, a spokesman for the organization said. In a poll conducted this week and released Thursday by the group, 47 percent of 935 registered voters surveyed said they would support the removal of Confederate imagery across the entire military.

The Marine Corps last week issued a ban on displays of the Confederate battle flag at its installations, and the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael M. Gilday, wrote on Twitter Tuesday that he had directed his staff to “begin crafting an order” banning displays of the flag from public spaces and work areas on bases, ships, aircraft and submarines. Leaders in the Army have called for bipartisan commissions to explore changing the names of some its installations.

“The unique thing about this moment is that white friends and colleagues now see this,” said Mr. Berry, who lives in New York. “After Charlottesville and Ferguson, these were conversations that black officers were having among themselves. It was not an open conversation among their white peers.”

The fights over statues and Confederate flags in public places have bubbled up often over the years, with their defenders repeatedly suggesting that banning or removing those items would be akin to erasing history.

In 2015, shortly after a white supremacist killed black parishioners in a church in Charleston, S.C., a budget bill in Congress almost failed amid an ugly floor fight in which Democrats, led by black lawmakers from the South, beat back a push by Republicans to allow Confederate symbols at national cemeteries.

This week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi once again called for the removal from the Capitol of 11 statues of Confederate figures, including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the latest salvo in a yearslong battle. On Thursday, two veterans in the House also introduced bipartisan legislation to create a process to rename military installations named for Confederates within a year. The Senate Armed Services Committee separately advanced a similar measure with a three-year timeline.

For black members of the military, seeing confederate names on military barracks delivers a special sting, given that they lionize men who led a treasonous war.

“I have been in every one of those barracks,” said Stephane Manuel, another West Point graduate who served in the Army from 2011 to 2017. “I studied in them and had friends there. I didn’t like it. The military hasn’t wanted to reconcile that the Confederate forces were traitors. I always felt from the mere moral standpoint of what they were fighting for went against what West Point stands for today.”

On his deployments, the topic would come up now and then, Mr. Manuel said, often leaving him uncomfortable as his white colleagues defended the practice.

“I felt it was best not to be political,” he said. “I was often one of the few black officers. I felt it was better to leave my perspective at home. People would ask my opinion and unless it was someone I was close to, I would not engage in those conversations.”

For some middle-age and older veterans, particularly noncommissioned offices like Mr. Green, who retired from the Army in 1998, the realization of their indignities came later.

“It wasn’t anything that stayed on my mind and I think that was because I was young,” he said. “I don’t ever remember ever having a conversation about it when I was on active duty. With my veteran friends, it later came more to light that African-American veterans were upset about it and it kind of enlightened me, too.”

Daniele Anderson, a former Navy officer who graduated in 2013 from the service’s academy in Annapolis, Md., and went on to serve until 2018, recalled how a professor at the school — later removed for other behaviorswrote an Op-Ed that denigrated students from the military prep schools, who were disproportionately people of color. Leadership conferences rarely featured minority speakers. In her junior year, Ms. Anderson said, she was in charge of events for Black History Month, and found that the posters she put up around campus were frequently ripped down. “I was told by fellow classmates that was a regular occurrence during Black History Month,” she said.

“There was always an underlying anxiety and the feeling that you have to always be alert and choosing your words carefully and not wanting to seem like you were playing the race card,” she said. “That really messed with a lot of black and minority students’ confidence. I think this social anxiety we have to navigate all the time really did contribute to lower performance.”

Like others interviewed for this article, Ms. Anderson said the events of the last week made her cautiously optimistic that the military would view the fight over removing Confederate names and symbols as an opportunity to look deeper at its broader culture.

“In the military, we have treated ourselves as if we are separate from society,” she said. “We have to know and understand that the military is part of society, because we draw our people from society, and we look at and listen to the same things as our civilian counterparts do.”

As a black veteran, she said, “I am in a unique position of being able to say, ‘Hey, I went to this institution, I made great sacrifices to do so, and we are calling on these institutions so they can be the best versions of themselves.’ ”





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