ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
The Air Force’s history is filled with bold African American Airmen who have challenged the status quo and dared to fly, fight and win. African American service members have continued to break barriers and make history since the Air Force became its own branch of service in 1947.
For the month of February, Airmen from across the 97th Air Mobility Wing, at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., shared and reflected on the importance of the heritage behind Black History Month.
“Black History Month means everything to me,” said Master Sgt. De’Erick Gray, 97th Operations Support Squadron Weather Flight chief. “It is a great time to reflect on many important feats that are known, not known or that were hidden in the past. A lot of the things that are brought to light are not taught in the school system or are common knowledge and I always look forward to learning something new.”
In 1948 President Harry S. Truman’s signed Executive Order 9981 into law. This order directed all military services to enforce equal treatment and opportunity for all members regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin. African Americans were then allowed to serve as full, permanent and equal members in all branches of the U.S. military.
“Black History is ingrained in American history, military history, and Air Force history,” said Gray. “For instance, without people like Benjamin Banneker, Eugene Bullard, and the Tuskegee Airmen, the United States that we know today may not exist. This is just a short list, but that list can go on for miles. In addition, it instills a sense of pride in the younger generations to know they came from greatness and that greatness is celebrated 10 years, 100 years, or sometimes even 1000 years later.”
According to the Department of Defense’s 2019 Military Demographics Survey, 23 percent of the Air Force is composed of African Amercians. Out of that 23 percent, 16.8 percent African Americans are enlisted and 6.2 percent serve as commissioned officers. Since African Americans joined the Air Force in 1948, statistics have shown those numbers are rapidly increasing.
As time has passed, African Americans from around the globe have begun fulfilling key roles in today’s military, government and politics. Today, the active duty Air Force comprises of more than 48,000 African Americans.
“I believe diversity is important within our Air Force because with diversity, comes different mindsets which can lead us to innovation or new ideas which can aid in the Air Force’s evolution,” said Airman 1st Class Alonza Barnes, 97th Logistics Readiness Squadron Individual Protective Equipment journeyman. “Diversity plays a major role in this because the way someone was brought up may have given them key insight to certain matters or situations that others are not accustomed to.”
African Americans serve in top ranks out of the Air Force, filling the roles of key enlisted and commissioned positions including commanders, generals, command chiefs and first sergeants. They continuously work to improve the quality of life, morale and readiness for Airmen across the Force.
“Diversity within the Air Force is one of our greatest strengths,” said Gray. “It allows us to take the qualities, experiences, skills, thought processes, and life journeys of a few hundred thousand people and operate as one well-oiled force. Without diversity, not just by race or nationality, we would not be the lethal force that we are. The funny thing about diversity is, if it is not managed correctly it could become our greatest weakness.”
As African American roles throughout society continue to expand, pioneers continue to break boundaries and make history in and out of the Air Force. Throughout the month of February, outstanding efforts made by African Americans, regardless of background, are celebrated and honored around the world.
“I think it is important that we celebrate Black History Month because African Americans have not always gotten credit for their contributions to society,” said Barnes. “This month is important because not only does it educate us, but it gives us the chance to honor those that paved the way for little girls and boys that look like me today.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explains in his book ‘Strength to Love,’ “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Qualities that to many, can be acknowledged throughout the Air Force every day.