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Walter Reed Celebrates National African American History Month

By Sarah Marshall
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

BETHESDA, Md., Feb. 26, 2015 – To honor the innumerable contributions of African Americans throughout U.S. history, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s Multicultural Committee here hosted a Feb. 19 celebration of National African American History Month featuring musical performances, a poetry reading, and a lunch.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
A cover band performs a variety of songs by Anita Baker and Toni Braxton at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., during the celebration of National African American History Month, Feb. 19, 2015. U.S. Army photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Held in the American Building’s main lobby, the event started with committee member Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Mandissa Thompson reading President Barack Obama’s proclamation for National African American History Month.

‘We Recommit to Advancing What has Been Left Undone’

“As we mark National African American History Month, we celebrate the giants of the Civil Rights Movement and countless other men and women whose names are etched in the hearts of their loved ones and the cornerstones of the country they helped to change,” Obama stated in his proclamation. “We pause to reflect on our progress and our history -- not only to remember, but also to acknowledge our unfinished work. We reject the false notion that our challenges lie only in the past, and we recommit to advancing what has been left undone.”

Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Stuart then took the podium to share a poem he wrote about a decade ago, titled, “I am Strong.” Keyboard music resonated in the background as Stuart read his poem, which described African Americans’ struggles and successes throughout history.

Inspirational Poem

“I was forced to have a life of submission, and I was called a slave. I was chained and shackled, and robbed of my dignity and self-worth … but I am strong,” Stuart read. “I was denied the opportunity to live my life as I desired. I was told I could not learn how to read and write … seek education or practice my religion, or exercise my right to vote.

“Even though faced with such great adversity … I was able to turn negative situations into positive,” he continued. “Today, I’m a doctor, I’m a dentist, I’m an entrepreneur and a politician … I’m an educator, leader, nurse, mentor, student, athlete, philanthropist. I’m a poet, I’m a writer, I’m even a scientist … I love serving this country and being part of this great U.S. team … and I’m so thankful for those African Americans who worked so hard, and some even sacrificed their lives, fighting for peace and equality, justice and freedom.”

Stuart went on to recognize some of the many influential leaders in African American history, such as Harriet Tubman, who led more than 300 slaves to freedom during the Civil War, and Benjamin Banneker, who invented the first wooden clock. Banneker was instrumental in developing the landscape of the nation’s capital, Stuart said.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy

Walter Reed Bethesda’s Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer Tyrone Willis also spoke about one of the most prominent leaders in African American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“His ‘I Have a Dream’ speech touched hearts the world around, and still echoes in the conscious of many today,” Willis said.

King had the power to influence, and his influence started the Civil Rights Movement, said the command master chief.

“Influence is everyone’s privilege. Influence is everyone’s responsibility. You, too, can have that same kind of influence,” Willis added.

He explained one must find someone or something to emulate, develop their characteristics, and adopt their patterns, habits, and principals. Willis said Dr. King admired Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

Retired Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer Clinton Garrett followed Willis, performing a rap he wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Garrett explained he was inspired to compose the rap after listening to King’s speeches.

The celebration also included a cover band which performed a variety of songs by Anita Baker and Toni Braxton, as the audience showed their appreciation with cheering and clapping prior to the serving of lunch.

Creating Cultural Awareness

Several attendees said they enjoyed the event and were moved by each of the performances. Angela Owens and Laura Trowers, who both work in internal medicine, agreed it was an important event, recognizing the contributions made by African Americans in history.

“It was nice, and I liked the awards afterwards,” Owens said, referring to the Multicultural Committee presenting performers with certificates of appreciation.

Theresa Bonds, who works in patient relations, explained that she particularly enjoyed Stuart’s inspirational poem.

“It was very powerful,” Bonds said. “I really enjoyed the entire program.”

Event organizer Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Buddhikah Abeyratne said the committee works tirelessly to host monthly activities honoring¬ diversity at the command.

“In this joint environment, we have many cultures working here,” he said. “It’s very important to educate everybody about our different cultures, to create cultural awareness and, therefore, we can better understand each other.”

The committee’s next celebration in March will be announced in the coming weeks.

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Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
Special Report: National African American History Month – A Century of Black Life, History and Culture
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