Since 1976, every one of our U.S. presidents has officially designated February as Black History Month, an annual celebration of the incredible achievements African Americans have made in helping to shape this great country of ours. I really got a sense of the role these heroes played in the history of our country when I visited the African American Military History Museum in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The museum is located inside the East Sixth Street USO Club, which was built in 1942 to house African American soldiers stationed at Camp Shelby. This was a haven where the soldiers could take advantage of a library, a darkroom, counseling services, a lounge and much more. It’s the only remaining World War II-era USO Club built specifically for black soldiers that’s still in use today.
The museum tells the brave tales of some of the many African American men and women who honorably and courageously served their country in both war and peace. There are exhibits from almost every war in which our country fought. There are many fascinating exhibits and artifacts but what made this such a moving experience for me were the individual stories of those who beat the odds — they rose out of poverty or overcame prejudice to accomplish incredible things through courage, wisdom and determination. For example, when I learned that Jesse LeRoy Brown, the first black aviator in the U.S. navy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his Korean War combat service, I was actually proud of him because I kind of felt that I knew him! Another story that moved me was the story of Ruth Bailey Earl. She was a nurse who cared for German POWs in England, but despite her much needed skills she was not allowed to care for white U.S. soldiers! It's a shameful moment in our history that we should never forget.