Story and photos by Devin Fisher
Terrance D. McWilliams was the first black to attend an all-white school in Volusia County, Fla. Looking to improve his life, McWilliams walked away from his 50-cent-a-week job picking oranges to pursue his only other option at the time – joining the military.
Taking advantage of the opportunities following the Army’s integration of blacks, McWilliams successfully climbed the ranks, retiring after a 31-year career with the rank of command sergeant major.
“As I started getting older and started looking at my options, (I realized) if I wanted to achieve economic empowerment … I had to get out of little old Volusia County, because I wasn’t going to achieve economic empowerment picking oranges the rest of my life,” said McWilliams, who served as the guest speaker at the Fort Carson Black History Month observance Feb. 16 at the Elkhorn Conference Center. This year’s theme is “The History of Black Economic Empowerment.”
McWilliams said that day he left the orange grove, realized military service was his only option.
“And 31 years later, I can say that I have not fully achieved economic empowerment, but I am well on my way,” said the former senior enlisted leader for Division West (First Army) and Fort Carson. “How do I measure that?” he asked. “I’m not standing on the corner with my little tin can asking for handouts.”
Today McWilliams serves as the director of military support for El Pomar Foundation in Colorado Springs and sits on numerous organization boards.
McWilliams acknowledges his success was only possible because of the achievements of so many African-Americans before him who helped pave the way.
Noting many African-Americans have made significant contributions to the defense of the nation, he said many “wore the uniform proudly and have yet to receive the proper recognition” due them.
“Too often our nation forgets the contributions and sacrifices made by a few of the citizens for the benefit of many,” McWilliams said.
He said it is fitting to pause and pay tribute to the personal sacrifices that were made many years ago, on and off the battlefield.
“I cannot think of a time in our nation’s history where African-Americans have not served this country,” he said. Noting blacks have fought in battles dating back to the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783, McWilliams said it wasn’t until after the Buffalo Soldiers were established in 1866 that African-Americans began receiving recognition for their bravery on the battlefield.
He shared stories of the 220,000 African-Americans serving during the War of 1812, with more than 37,000 paying the ultimate sacrifice; and the all-black 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions, the 761st Medium Tank Battalion (now the 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division) and the Tuskegee Airmen who served valiantly in World War II.
He credits the 1989 movie “Glory” for imprinting the exploits of African-Americans on the conscience of Americans. While the movie highlighted the all-volunteer 54th Massachusetts Regiment, “it told the story of the exploits of all African-Americans during a time of war when this nation needed them,” he said.
President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, eliminating discrimination within federal service and mandating that the Department of Defense eliminate segregation within the armed forces but, McWilliams noted, it wasn’t until 1954 when DoD ended segregation within its units.
The War Department began experimenting, integrating black Soldiers into white infantry units – having a standalone all-black infantry company commanded by white officers. McWilliams said the experiment finally ended during the Korean War, where African-Americans “truly proved their worth” as Soldiers. He noted the success of the African-American Soldiers continued during the Vietnam War where more than
20 black Soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor.
Even after the U.S. military transitioned to an all-volunteer force in 1973, many African-Americans turned to military service.
“It was still a struggle for someone of color to be successful and have prosperity economically, so they turned to the military to help them achieve that economic prosperity,” he said.
“And even today … the military has helped a lot of minorities who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to achieve economic empowerment.”
Retired 1st Sgt. Derick Maull set the mood for the observance with an inspiring rendition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is as relevant today as it was (when King gave it) Aug. 28, 1963,” Maull said. “That speech speaks to us today as we live our lives as Soldiers and as we serve our country in defense of the freedoms Martin Luther King spoke about.”
Following an inspirational dance by 1st Lt. Lenora Gogins-Watkins, 43rd Sustainment Brigade, the post’s commanding general noted the contributions of African-Americans “is very long, deep and significant.”
“Prior to the founding of our nation and through all the very difficult (times) that our nation has endured – (from) the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars (I and II), the civil rights movements – there’s always been key African-Americans who have provided leadership, inspiration and motivation,” said Maj. Gen. David G. Perkins, commanding general, 4th Infantry Division and Fort Carson. “Even in times where it was not even acknowledged or appreciated … they have always been there, serving their country.”