Black History Month and the USO

Black History Month traces its roots to the work of Carter G. Woodson, who – in 1926 designated a week in February to reflect on the contributions of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to the lives of African Americans.  Nearly a century later we observe “Black History Month.”

The US Military has a long tradition of African Americans serving.  And although the military was not legally desegregated until 1948 by President Harry S Truman, the USO served the needs of Black service members from the outset.

African American soldiers relax at a USO Center in the early 1940s

In 1942, a USO Club opened in Hattiesburg, MS, specifically for African American soldiers; it is the only extant USO Center built for that purpose.  In 2003 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and is home to Hattiesburg’s African American Military Museum.

From the beginning, USO policy expressly forbade discrimination on the basis of race or creed, but as Gretchen Knapp explained in “Experimental Social Policymaking During World War II: The United Service Organizations (USO) and American War-Community Services (AWCS),” it was not uncommon for separate USO Centers to spring up in the same town, “either because of local regulations or by the request of African Americans who deplored the tensions that arose when they entered the USO center.”

USO Centers designed exclusively for Black soldiers soon sprung up around the country, including Tacoma, WA; Tuscon, AZ; San Marcos, TX; and Portland, OR, just to name a few.  In fact, by 1943, “more than 180 of 1,326 USO operations were designated for African Americans.” (ibid)

African American serviceman, being greeted at the front desk of a USO Center, 1943.

As the military integrated, so did USO Centers, many of whom also opened their doors to female service members around the same time.  The impact of those early, segregated clubs was felt, however, in a lasting acknowledgement and respect for the service of Black Troops during World War II and the idea that a “home away from home” was available to anyone visiting a USO Center.

Today the USO and the US Military continue to recognize the contributions of African Americans from every branch of the military.  The Coast Guard has announced the soon-to-be released documentary “RESCUE MEN: The Story of the Pea Island Life Savers,” the story of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station surfmen.  The Marines are celebrating the legacy of African American Marines with a multi-media project entitled “The Line.”  One part of that project is this commercial:

Other branches are celebrating, too: the Navy’s remembers the “Golden 13″ and offers a series of events at the Navy Memorial; a number of Air Force Bases are holding celebrations, such as the Gospel Extravaganza at Offut AFB.  The Army has created a website, “African Americans in the U.S. Army,” chock full of unique content on the history of Black soldiers.  Likewise, Military.com is offering exclusive content on the history of African American service, from the Buffalo Soldiers to the Tuskegee Airman to current Troops.  Speaking of the Tuskegee Airman, George Lucas’ film Red Tails – the story of the Tuskegee Airman – will be released later in 2010.

As of June 2009 Black troops account for 239,661(17%) of total active duty (Total Pop 1,405,489) and minority women continue to join the military at a higher rate than their share in the civilian population.  We salute these service members – and all African Americans who have served in the US military – during Black History Month and every day of the year!

Camp Virginia Gets Creative

We love getting dispatches from the field, especially from our USO Centers that support Troops who are far, far from home.  Like Camp Virginia, in Kuwait – this USO Center never fails to amaze with their innovative programs, events, and activities.  We take a moment to share a few of our favorites from this month…

CakeCamp Virginia held a Black History Month/United Through Reading celebration with a beautiful cake and inspiring speech by SFC Areka Brown of the 90th HRC.

SFC Brown spoke movingly about the important contributions of African Americans throughout the history of the United States and the U.S. military.  Afterward, she cut the amazing cake (seen at right with SFC Brown), which was enjoyed by the permanent parties and transient troops in attendance.

Sock PuppetsNothing says fun in the desert like…sock puppets?  But how cool is this: on 8 February, USO at Camp Virginia held their first “Sock Puppets for the Sick” arts and craft event.   And all of the puppets were donated to a children’s hospital!

The USO supplied buttons, felt, ribbon and markers for the over 35 creative puppets.  As Duty Manager Bonnie Bachenheimer wrote us, “Socks ‘n stuff + inventive and caring troops = smiling young patients.”

Finally – and just when you thought they couldn’t top the cake and puppets – USO at Camp Virginia hosted a concert featuring Celtic Aire, a musical group composed of the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants.  Members of Celtic Aire are Technical Sgts. Joseph Haughton, Julia Brundage, and Emily Lewis, and Master Sgt. Eric Sullivan, all seen below.

Celtic AireAs Bachenheimer explains, “We were initially somewhat bewildered because we never previously had this type of group entertain at the USO.  However, it took less than one song for Celtic Aire to win over just about everyone inside the Center. The group played Irish folk songs and dance music, American Blue Grass and country, drinking tunes and bar ditties.  Between the jigs and sing-alongs, the jokes and stories, their show seemed much shorter than the 75 minutes they played.”  Awesome!

Thanks to the staff and volunteers at USO Camp Virginia for sharing these amazing stories with us.  And if your loved one has spent any time at the USO Center there, let us know!  We love to hear YOUR stories, too.