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News | June 24, 2024

Stories, music highlight Walter Reed’s Juneteenth celebration

By Bernard Little

Sharing stories and music highlighted Walter Reed’s celebration of Juneteenth on June 18 at the medical center.

Members of the Walter Reed community shared those stories, telling personal accounts of their families and themselves. They explained that while there have been advances in equality since June 19, 1865 (when the enslaved Black people in Texas were told they were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued), there’s still a long way to go before diversity, equity, and inclusion can be realized throughout the country.

“Juneteenth celebrations have historically incorporated community gatherings to honor history,” said U.S. Navy Capt. (Dr.) Melissa Austin, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) director. She added that the sharing of stories has traditionally highlighted these gatherings.

“It has been my experience that stories are most impactful when you know the person who is telling you the stories and you’ve walked with them,” Austin said. She added the military has played an essential role in equal rights and opportunities.

In June 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas were free. Celebrations of the announcement established the roots for Juneteenth, although nationwide emancipation would come only with the ratification of the 13th Amendment later that year. The Emancipation Proclamation had only freed enslaved Black people in the secessionist Confederate states.

Although free, Black Americans still could not vote, faced Jim Crow laws, and other measures designed to keep them as second-class citizens. It wasn’t until 1948, when Executive Order 9981 was issued, that the U.S. military was ordered to desegregate.

“One of the beautiful things about the military is that when we are given an order, we move out,” Austin said. “The military has led our nation in demonstration of what can be achieved by an inclusive workforce. We are stronger for our diversity. We are stronger for the different perspectives everyone brings to the organization. We’re not perfect, but we’ve come a long way and still have a long way to go. We need to fully realize the aspirations of the Emancipation Proclamation. Everyone deserves to feel included, valued, and respected. Let us make that our goal,” she added.

Ron Madison, DEI officer for Walter Reed, agreed that Juneteenth symbolizes the ongoing efforts for human rights and equality. He also shared some of his family history with those in attendance, explaining that his uncle, Frank “Herby” Madison, was the first African American to join the Texas National Guard in 1961. “Uncle Herby” would serve honorably in uniform for more than 20 years, including tours in Vietnam and other assignments worldwide. However, it was a challenge for him to join the Texas Guard initially. Madison explained that with the help of an ally, a white commanding officer, “Uncle Herby,” was able to enlist. Frank “Herby” Madison, a decorated Soldier, is now buried in Arlington Cemetery.

“If we want to know history, we should start by knowing each other,” Madison said.

Retired U.S. Navy Master Chief Clinton Garrett also shared a bit of his history. He recalled the 1968 riots in his native Detroit that occurred following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I was very young then and most of my memories come from the stories shared with me by my grandfather,” he said. He recalls seeing his grandfather hose down “the house he worked so hard for” to prevent flare-ups from the embers of burning buildings in the city.

Garrett also shared that in the following years, because of his Navy recruiter, he got the opportunity to meet civil rights activist Rosa Parks, best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Parks had moved to Detroit following the boycott, and Garrett said he was speechless upon meeting her. He explained that all that many of those involved in the early Civil Rights Movement, like Parks, asked for were “civil rights…just civil, not equal…and that was an issue,” he said.

From his grandfather, Garrett said he also learned about Juneteenth, initially not very well known about outside of Texas. As those who celebrated Juneteenth in Texas left the state, the observance gained greater notice.

An accomplished rapper, Garrett explained that he performed during Juneteenth celebrations while stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California. Also, while at Camp Pendleton, Garrett said he witnessed an individual go down from heat exhaustion and someone not wanting to provide care to the individual because of the color of the person’s skin.

Garrett shared another experience in his life, which he explained was shaped by the teachings of his grandfather, “a man with only a six-grade education.”

Garrett and his wife took in one of his son’s friends after the friend’s father was killed. “My son, then in middle school, asked us if his friend could stay with us while they finished middle school and high school. My son’s friend just happened to be white. He lived with us for six years and gave us our first grandkid.”

“One of the things my grandfather used to say was to treat people with decency and humanity, and you’d be amazed by what you can have people do, not because they have to, but because they believe in what you’re doing and what you stand for,” Garrett shared.

The ceremony concluded with Garrett’s performance of his rap song “Elder’s Toil,” in which he pays “tribute to those who paved the way and broke through barriers, such as Opal Lee.”

Madison shared that Lee, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in May 2024, was a driving force to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday. “She promoted the idea by leading 2.5 miles walks each year, representing the 2.5 years it took for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas. At the age of 89, she conducted a symbolic walk from Fort Worth, from which she departed in September 2016, to Washington, D.C., where she arrived in January 2017,” he shared.

The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act designated June 19 as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, with Lee in attendance for the presidential signing of the Senate bill.

“Juneteenth not only commemorates the past, but it is also an opportunity to celebrate the resilience of the life of the African American community and to further commit to the fulfillment of America’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all,” Madison added.

Lonnie Bunch III, the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the first African American and first historian to serve as head of the Smithsonian has stated, “Juneteenth is an opportunity to both look back [and] ahead to make sure that the notion of freedom and the fragility of it is always protected and celebrated.”
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