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Posted 2/20/2009

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By John Neville


Black History Month is nearly over, but the historical and professional lessons learned at the 2009 Intergovernmental Black History Committee’s Seminars and Luncheon event are relevant 365 days per year.

This event, which took place this year at the Holiday Inn in Clarksville, Ind., was actually born out of necessity. In the last few years, government agencies have begun downsizing outreach programs and equal employment opportunity initiatives due to budget constraints.

In an effort to preserve the spirit behind the programs, former Louisville District U.S. Army Corps of  Engineer EEO Director Patricia Wigginton contacted government agencies and small business associations and suggested remaining funds be pulled together and used for a one-day, multi-agency event.

Attendees to this year’s event sat in on several educational and informative seminars—communications skills, diversity, recognizing and managing conflict in the workplace, human trafficking, equal employment opportunity, networking—and a presentation by the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the nation’s first all-black parachute infantry unit.

“I do a lot of public speaking, and I did learn a lot,” said USACE Louisville District Small Business Deputy Linda Hunt-Smith, explaining her morning session in the Communications seminar with USACE Public Affairs Officer Ron Elliott. “Of the percent you get across, 55 percent is body language, and only seven percent is actually what you speak and how you speak. (Elliott) also had us read a story and interpret it, and you saw how people interpreted it differently. You really have to watch what you read and listen before you speak.” 

J. Sterling Grant—a former police officer—later gave a speech entitled “The Death and Resurrection of Self.” One of his key points was controlling emotions in the workplace.

“Think before you make decisions,” said Pamala Harris of the USACE Louisville District’s Executive Office, explaining one of Grant’s key points. “A lot of times we get upset and angry and we want to act out at that moment, and it might seem like its right, but the consequences might not be good.”

While much of the day was dedicated to professional development, the event’s purpose was to celebrate and reflect upon African American History. USACE Louisville District Commander Col. Keith Landry spoke to attendees at the lunch break. He discussed his service with the 92nd Engineer Battalion in Iraq. The unit’s lineage traces back to an all-black unit that served in World War II.

“It won three meritorious unit accommodations in the Italian Campaign,” he said. “It was a very decorated unit.”

Landry then discussed the exploits of Sgt. William Carney, the first black soldier to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1863, Carney entered the military and became a member of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. In July of that same year, Carney found himself in the fierce Battle of Fort Wagner.

After being wounded, Carney saw that the color (flag) bearer had been shot down a few feet away. Carney summoned all his strength to retrieve the fallen colors and continued the charge. During the charge, Carney was shot several more times, yet he kept the colors flying high. Once he delivered the flag back to his regiment, he shouted, “The Old Flag never touched the ground!” For this act Carney became the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.

“It’s an understatement to talk about the tremendous valor and long history that African Americans have demonstrated in service to this country,” he said.

Following lunch, Willa Hurt Stock—known nationally for her skills as a gifted orator—delivered a speech she titled, “Change.”

“Black history is not just for African Americans,” she said. “It is important to the entirety of our society—America and other nations.”

Stock really began to draw out the crowd’s enthusiasm toward the end of her speech when she recited several lines from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” She, like King, left the podium with a plea to her audience.

“America, we must keep our fingers on the pulse of change, and declare, ‘Yes we can, yes we will.’ So let us sing together, ‘America, America, God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to signing sea. So come now, and let us reason together, and let us go forward to the future in oneness, for we are the people of the United States of America, together we stand, one nation, under God, equal, undivided, with liberty and justice for all. America, a change has come.”