Celebrating America’s Black Military Heroes

By Roberto Vazquez
SHARON DIGGS-JACKSON leads a Veteran’s Day tour at the African American Cultural Center of Long Beach on Saturday, Nov. 11.

Just after 3 p.m. on Veterans Day, Sharon Diggs-Jackson stepped outside the African American Cultural Center of Long Beach (AACCLB), now in its third year of operation, and greeted guests arriving for a tour of the Center’s November exhibit, “Valor and Legacy: The African Americans Military Experience.”

The non-profit is, “a community of activists, advocates, and concerned citizens,” whose mission is to, “preserve, honor, and celebrate the heritage and advance the culture of the Black/African American community in Long Beach and beyond.”

As she spoke, Diggs-Jackson was warm and cordial, encouraging guests to touch the displayed memorabilia, including a battlefield helmet.

One little boy holding a small American flag in each hand, ran around excitedly in circles.

At times, in his exuberance the little flags would dip down and make earthly contact. Diggs-Jackson calmly and politely spoke, “We try to not let our flag touch the ground.”

Then, Diggs-Jackson, like anyone who grew up one of 10 children, seized the opportunity to educate and inspire the little flag violator.

Knowing it was a perfect moment to learn a life lesson, Diggs-Jackson pointed to a combat helmet and said, “Imagine wearing that.” Diggs-Jackson continued, “What if you actually had to wear this?”

Before she could finish, the little guy was already wearing the helmet, surprised by its heft, “I can’t even see!” The group laughed in unison and moved on to where this legacy of valor began.

Recalling A Painful Past

Diggs-Jackson, who grew up in Long Beach, proudly stated, “African Americans have fought in every single battle that has ever been waged.”

She then pointed out an American hero, Crispus Attucks, and declared, “The very first person to lose their life in the fight for the creation of the United States, was a Black man.”

Soon, questions and comments percolated about the legendary Buffalo Soldiers and their westward, trailblazing role.

According to one educational video presented, the Buffalo Soldiers were responsible for, among other duties, “guarding against outlaws, Pancho Villa and Indians.”

One guest was Carole Elaine Powers, a science teacher at Dooley Elementary.

Powers opened up about her father, whose military career in the Air Force offered their family a chance to live overseas for years at a time, including tours in Libya and Spain, respectively.

Powers began speaking but could only say, “Just thinking about my dad …”

Powers voice cracked with emotion, her nose wrinkled, and before they realized it, two strangers huddled and briefly wept, for lost parents, for lost heroes, Black or otherwise, each aware of a debt that could never be repaid. Powers continued, “I have never been back to the graveside, I just can’t, it’s been twenty something years.”

Then, as if a happy thought crossed her mind, her face brightened as she shared, “My friend, Jamie Berry, goes every year and she takes pictures of his tombstone and puts a flag on it.”

Powers spoke of the bonds between soldiers and the bonds that also form between their offspring. “It’s like no other,” she said, and added, “I’m really happy that I came. Cry if you need to cry and let it out.”

Powers recalled a childhood memory about their trips to the South during summertime, how the elders would repeat a frequent phrase to the youngsters. “We would always hear, when we would visit Texas and Louisiana, ‘Every generation gotta do better’.”

Then, Powers smiled wide, and said goodbye, but not before parting with, “Our forefathers, they would be so proud of all of us, the things that we’ve been able to accomplish. ‘Every generation gotta do better! We teach our kids the same thing.”

A Young Hero Emerges

As Diggs-Jackson spoke, the group moved to a photo of a young man, proudly holding Old Glory.

“This gentleman here is the first Black, Medal of Honor recipient,” pointing to the 23 year old, William Harvey Carney.

In Charleston, South Carolina, Army Sergeant Carney was part of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, an all-Black regiment of former slaves and freed Northerners under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. On July 18, 1863, while the men of the 54th crawled up the hill to where Fort Wagner stood, the regiment’s flag bearer was felled, but not before Carney sprang into action, catching the Union flag in mid-air and exhorting his fellow soldiers to follow him, which they did, crawling all the way to the top.

Later, Carney, who was seriously wounded during the Fort Wagner victory, was celebrated and, later, medically discharged.

Though it took 37 years, on May 23rd, 1900, Sergeant Carney, by now 60 years old, was finally recognized for his heroism at Fort Wagner, for rescuing our nation’s flag.

It is unlikely William Harvey Carney could have imagined his name being spoken 100 years after his death, but it is, including by one little boy, who now proudly waved an American flag in each hand, flags that wouldn’t touch the ground again today, or ever, not after he’d learned about America’s legacy of Black military heroes, men like Crispus Attucks, the Buffalo Soldiers, and one, brave, Army Sergeant willing to risk his life upholding the honor and glory of a young nation’s flag.

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