HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office hosted its annual Black History Month presentation Feb. 28.
More than 100 employees attended the virtual event featuring four panelists who paid tribute to Black Americans who have overcome educational, political and economic barriers to make significant contributions to our nation’s history and identity.
“Black history will continue to be an important part of both American and world history,” said Arthur Martin, director of the Center’s Installation Support and Program Management directorate, as well as the current ambassador of the Center’s Black Employment Program. “However, we must continue to tell the stories and share the lived experiences of all.”
The theme of this year’s event was “Black Resilience,” and each speaker shared stories of African Americans who exemplified different forms of resilience: political, educational, economic and mental.
Angela Wilson, contracting officer and chief of the Facility Technology Integration Support Branch, spoke about political resilience, which she defined as “continually engaging in the political process regardless of the short-term outcomes and despite significant difficulties to enact positive long-term changes.”
Wilson taught attendees about Frederick Douglas, a former slave who escaped to freedom and became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in the mid-19th Century.
“He endured threats and assaults along the way by those who hoped to silence his message, but Mr. Douglas continued his writing and speeches and acting as a conduit for change through various activities,” Wilson said. “A snippet of his work included traveling abroad as a fugitive slave supporting abolition efforts, helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, and starting his own printing press to publish articles on the abolishment of slavery.”
Wilson also spoke about the battle for voting rights and the ongoing need for political resilience.
“Exercising individual political rights and staying engaged in the political process will result in some successes and some disappointments along the way, but it’s necessary to view the long game,” she said. “By learning political resilience, we can effectively and more quickly recover from setbacks and emerge stronger.”
Quintessia Fuller, Internal Review chief, provided examples of educational resilience, which she defined as “the capacity to succeed in school despite exposure to personal and environmental adversities.”
“Regardless of race, economic circumstance, or any other differences, the pursuit of education has been a goal for many groups throughout the history of the United States,” Fuller said. “Unfortunately, Black Americans, as well as other groups, have had to continuously and repeatedly recover or adjust to misfortunes brought about from situations and circumstances beyond their own control. In the area of education, Black Americans have been forced to be resilient in how they approach not just formal education but even just the basic concept of literacy time after time.”
Fuller, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Alabama A&M University, as a master’s degree and doctorate in business administration from The University of Phoenix, spoke about the value of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), institutions of higher education established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the principal mission of the education of Black Americans.
“These institutions are a standing testament to the resilience of Black Americans,” she said.
HBCUs provided a critical need for education during post-Civil War reconstruction in the 1800s, when southern states began instituting black codes, which gave rise to the Jim Crow Laws of the 1900s, Fuller said.
“While nearly every part of Black American’s lives were being scrutinized and any action could be found criminal, we were continuing to push and build ourselves by attaining education to bring about better circumstances,” she said.
Today, Alabama has fourteen active HBCUs, more than any other state. Three of those are in the Huntsville area: Alabama A&M University, Oakwood University and J.F. Drake State Community and Technical College.
Tracing the economic resilience demonstrated by many Black Americans throughout history, Tonju Samuels, Pre-Award Division chief, provided multiple examples, including the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the most prominent concentrations of Black-owned businesses during the early 20th Century.
The thriving commercial district, known as “Black Wall Street” at the time, was nearly destroyed during a series of race-related events, a two-day period that had controversially been called the “Tulsa Race Riot.”
“Some say it was given that name at the time for insurance purposes because designating it a riot prevented insurance companies from having to pay benefits to the people of Greenwood whose homes and businesses were destroyed,” Samuels said.
Though the district had been nearly decimated, Greenwood residents and business owners persevered and rebuilt much of the community within 10 years of the massacre, she said.
“It continued as a vital Black community until segregation was overturned by the federal government during the 1950s and 60s,” she said. “Talk about being resilient.”
Samuels also shared the stories of Charles Clinton Spaulding, whose hugely successful leadership of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company earned him the reputation as one of the most prominent entrepreneurs of the 20th Century; John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Company in 1942 who was the first Black person to appear in the Forbes 100; and Maggie Walker, a Black entrepreneur and civic leader who became the first woman of any race to own a bank in the United States.
“Our history has certainly been plagued with turmoil and bad experiences, but through those experiences, there have been some great accomplishments,” Samuels said. “Black Americans learned how to be resilient despite the status quo.”
Mike Lanier, project director and team lead for the USACE Medical Facilities Center of Expertise and Standardization, spoke about mental resilience.
“Black mental resilience is the ability to maintain health, cultivate positive attitudes and overcome challenges while facing systemic racism and other forms of discrimination,” he said. “It is the process of developing and sustaining the mental strength, courage and fortitude to withstand and overcome difficult experiences while finding ways to thrive despite them.”
To exemplify Black mental resilience in U.S. history, Lanier taught attendees about Dr. Charles Richard Drew, a Black surgeon and researcher who organized America’s first large-scale blood bank and trained a generation of Black physicians at Howard University.
Though Dr. Drew’s innovations earned him the title “father of the blood bank,” he was initially ineligible to participate in the program he helped establish because the armed forces required the Red Cross exclude Blacks from donating, said Lanier.
“Dr. Charles Drew’s mental resilience for innovation to save lives while enduring the obstacles before him and the system that would not even allow him to fully engage in what he created is an example we can all learn from,” he said.
He also pointed to the example set by Katherine Johnson, one of NASA’s first Black female scientists whose work was critical in sending astronauts into space for the Apollo missions.
“Ms. Johnson exemplified the strength of mental resilience as a Black Women to excel in a field dominated by white men at a time of segregation and the challenges of civil and human rights,” Lanier said. “Being able to ignore or compartmentalize outside challenges to concentrate on achieving historic mathematical calculations that were mission critical is a learned skill of mental resilience that allows many to achieve under the most horrific conditions.”
Huntsville Center strives to build an equitable and inclusive workplace where all employees can contribute to the mission of the workforce. The Center established the Black Employment Program to locate and remove any barriers that may hinder the outreach, recruitment, and/or employment of African Americans. For more information, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Office at 256-895-1573.