ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --
Recognized in February each year, Black History Month spotlights the history of people of African descent in the United States.
The month itself also holds historic significance, starting as Negro History Week in 1925, what would become Black History Month was organized by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History founded by renowned historian Carter G. Woodson. The organization is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH.
The celebration of black history was later expanded to a month in 1976. Since then, every U.S. president has designated the month of February as Black History Month.
In recognition of Black History Month, Arnold Engineering Development Complex team members recently shared the various ways they observe the month and why its occurrence is important to them.
1st Lt. Kodjovi Klikan, test engineer with the AEDC 716th Test Squadron, commented Black History Month serves as a reminder of the many accomplishments of people of color.
“I believe taking a time to put the projector on the contributions made by the Afro-Americans to this beautiful experiment we call the United States of America is a good ritual for the soul of the nation,” he said. “Personally, it symbolizes a dedicated period to reflect on the actions of those before us who paved the way to a more inclusive society.”
Klikan encourages everyone to take time to “read, listen, observe and act.”
“Beyond the materialistic support of black enterprises, I think the true ‘participation’ resides in educating ourselves on the history and the culture from the lenses of those who experienced them.”
Samuel Northcutt Jr., an engineering technician at Arnold, mentioned Black History Month is significant because it reminds him, “That we [African Americans] had a role in creating this great country that we live in.”
Northcutt added that he takes the opportunity to teach his grandchildren about their family history.
“I sit down with my grandchildren and pull out our family picture albums and tell them about our ancestors,” he said. “It lets them know how important it is to know where you come from.”
Kelsi Pilcher, attorney advisor for the Staff Judge Advocate Office at Arnold, stated her meaning of Black History Month has shifted and evolved throughout her life experiences.
“I celebrate Black history every day because that is the essence of who I am,” she said. “My expectation each Black History Month is for there to be a greater implementation of the celebration and recognition of Black people and their impact on American History. Black history isn't just the repetitive and iconic figures we learned about in elementary school; it's important that we also see and honor current Black individuals who are continuing in the steps of their ancestors, impacting and advancing the world.”
When asked about his thoughts on Black History Month, AEDC Commander Col. Randel Gordon reiterated that at its roots, Black history is simply American history.
“Black History Month is really American History Month, and often times what I’ve noticed is that when we have events, like Pacific Islander Month or Women’s History Month, when you’re looking out at the audience, all that you see are members of that particular group,” Gordon said. “So, you see women show up for Women’s History Month events or Black Americans for Black History Month events, and I always looked at that as a lost opportunity, because in reality, when we’re talking about these things, we’re talking about this continuing story of the American experiment and African American or Black history is a part of American history and should be something that is looked at by men and women of all races.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself wanted that. He’s on record numerous times talking about, ‘It doesn’t really matter the color of your skin, it’s the content of your character.’ All of those things in Dr. King’s vision, he was very much about a country that was blind to people’s gender or race and very much about who they are as individuals.”
In addition to Dr. King, another black leader Gordon looks up to is Lee Archer, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.
“I got a chance to meet him when I was a cadet in the Air Force Academy, and I got a chance to fly with him because he came out to the academy,” he said. “We took a flight in a sailplane, and I was the pilot for him. So, not only can I say, ‘I met a Tuskegee Airman,’ but I can also say that I flew with a Tuskegee Airman. It was nice to have that time with him. When I think of leaders I look up to, Lee Archer is one of them. He is no longer with us, but I got a chance to at least learn from him along the way.”
A memory Gordon will never forget is Archer thanking him for representing the diversity of the military today.
“One of the things [Archer] told me after the flight was over was ‘Thank you,’” Gordon said. “And what I was thinking at the time was ‘Oh yeah, no problem, sir…really the honor is all mine.’ But he kind of tapped me on the shoulder like, ‘No, no, you don’t understand what I’m telling you. What I’m telling you is ‘thank you.’ [What he meant was] thank you for existing here in this Air Force Academy with all these cadets from all these different races and backgrounds and different cultures because the Air Force he knew in the 1930s and early 1940s didn’t have that.
“Archer also told me this story of going to war and fighting in Italy. War was one of those things that melted down a lot of barriers about race, because if you’re fighting an adversary, and you’re the bomber and you see a fighter plane pull up beside you and it’s got a red tail behind it, you’re rooting that they’re doing their job because you don’t want to get shot down. So, at that point, issues of race kind of melted away and it just became about competence.
“Then when he got back to the United States and was coming down the troop ship in Manhattan, at the base of the dock, there were signs ‘Whites this way,’ and ‘Coloreds this way,’ and it totally deflated him. Because he felt, I’ve done my part for my nation, my nation has asked me to fight, and I did all that… only to come back to the United States and be treated like a third-class citizen all over again. It was so demoralizing to him. All that happened in 1945 or 1946, but you wouldn’t have Civil Rights, if you will, until the mid-1960s, so it was about 20 years even after World War II where men like Lee Archer, not only were they fighting [the adversary] abroad, but they were also fighting racism back home. To meet a man who went through something like that and has the character behind that, was really humbling for me.”
As a Black leader himself, Gordon stated he hopes to leave a good impression on the people he meets and works with and isn’t only remembered because of his race.
“At the end of the day, if people look at me and my legacy eventually at some point, and they go ‘Yep, he was a good leader, he was a good person,’ who just so happened to be a Black man, then that’s wonderful. But if the first thing that happens, is they lead with my race, well, I think, ‘Maybe I haven’t done what I needed to do here.’ If that’s the first thing that comes to their minds, I need to be working harder to impress on folks that I want to be a good leader and a good man and a good person with all the right value-driven things. And oh, by the way, I just happen to be a pilot. I just happen to be Black. I just happen to do all these other things.
“Too often it’s easy to get wrapped up in identity. Like I’m a Black person, I’m a woman, I’m this or that, and if we’re not careful, we’ll view each other as labels. What I’ve learned is, we need to view each other as people. The common dignity and humanity that we have with other human beings comes out in front of all these other things. Not to say those aren’t important, because they are. They are woven into who we are. But, at the end of the day, the ‘who’ is way more important than the ‘what.’ I’ve learned to follow Dr. King’s example on that, of let’s get away from the identity stuff and let’s talk more in terms of people and who we are and what we bring to the team and how we value one another as teammates first.”
Inclusivity is a priority to AEDC
Over the past few years, AEDC leadership has been making a concerted effort to ensure all team members feel welcome in the workplace. According to Pilcher, who is a leading member of the AEDC Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Council at Arnold, inclusivity is a top priority to the DEIA and AEDC.
“The DEIA council at Arnold AFB is committed to the warfighting efforts of the diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility imperatives, and we aim not only to secure diverse talent in furtherance of the Air Force's mission but also to empower an inclusionary workforce where all employees are treated with dignity and respect,” she said. “The DEIA Council members provide representation from each department at Arnold and serve as a liaison between the general workforce and me, the chief of the council, and the AEDC commander.”
As the chief of the council, Pilcher coordinates with both the Air Force Materiel Command and Air Force Test Center DEIA councils to establish trainings and resource guides that are then sent out to the Arnold AFB DEIA Council and then distributed to respective departments or offices.
“These trainings and guides provide a platform for small group discussions on DEIA initiatives and foster an inclusionary workspace,” Pilcher said. “DEIA in the workplace is important because it leads to a more extensive talent pool, increases employee engagement, higher retention and greater innovation. If we want to maintain our AEDC aerospace mission and the Air Force mission to ‘Fly-Fight-Win,’ it’s vital that we remain competitive and engaged, and we can do so by having a diverse workforce that prioritizes equity, inclusion and accessibility for its members.”