Thursday, February 26, 2009

NAACP, Oregon's first African American Guard member, help celebrate African-American Heritage Month

The first African-American member of the Oregon Army National Guard was honored today during a ceremony commemorating African-American Heritage Month, held at Joint Force Headquarters in Salem, Ore.

Organized by the Oregon National Guard Diversity Council, the ceremony honored retired Master Sgt. Earl Henry Winchester—who joined the Oregon Army National Guard in 1955.

Oregon Army National Guard Chief of Staff for Army, Col. Don Bond, presented Winchester with the Oregon Exceptional Service Medal, and a framed copy of the NonCommissioned Officer Creed.

Oregon State Defense Force Colonel, Warren Aney, said a lot has changed since Winchester joined the Oregon Guard.

"You broke ground. You set a standard for all minorities to follow," Aney said to Winchester.

According to a legal essay by Bill Long, Oregon was known as the “Dixie of the North”, with laws prohibiting African Americans from owning property, and a provision in the territorial constitution, passed in 1857, banning freed slaves from even entering Oregon. As recently as the late 50s, the city of Medford had a "Sundown Law", which prohibited African Americans from being out in public after sunset.

“We’ve come a long way,” Aney said.

"Master Sgt. Winchester symbolizes our ability to recognize talent no matter what the color of your skin, or your religious background. Thank you Earl," Aney added.

Keynote speaker, Ronnie Brooks, who is the Executive Board Member of the Salem Chapter of the NAACP, addressed about a hundred citizen-airmen, citizen-soldiers, and civilian attendees who turned out for the lunch-time event in the Owen Summers building.

Brooks thanked Winchester for his sacrifice, saying he would not be today’s keynote speaker had it not been for the sacrifices of African-Americans like him, who put themselves on the line (both figuratively and literally).

“I am standing on the shoulders of people like this gentleman here,” Brooks said, as he pointed and smiled at Winchester, who sat in the front row with his wife, Virginia, sister Norma Kennedy, and son, Peter.

Winchester’s long military career began in 1942 when he joined the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the 356th Engineer General Service Regiment in the European Theater as a truck driver, and served in Normandy and in northern France.

After being honorably discharged in late 1945, he re-enlisted for three more years, serving at Fort Leavenworth until being honorably discharged in 1948.

After joining the Oregon Army National Guard in December 1955, he rose through several ranks, including company First Sergeant with Company A, 162nd Combat Engineers, and worked for a number of units within Oregon.

In 1974, after being honorably discharged from the Oregon Guard, he re-enlisted with the U.S. Army Reserve, where he served as battalion operations sergeant at Headquarters, 3rd Battalion, 415th Regiment at Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Wash., until retiring from the military in 1981. All-told, Winchester served 32 years of military service.

Brooks thanked Winchester for his service and sacrifice, and encouraged Americans to come together to bridge the racial divide. He recalled a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King.

"This is a time for us to look at each other not for the color of our skin, but for the content of our character," he said.

He thanked the men and women in uniform for their "supreme sacrifice for us and our children."
Brooks spoke about his personal struggles growing up in a segregated society during the late 1960s, and how many people helped him overcome obstacles throughout his life. He eventually graduated from Texas A&M University (formerly East Texas State University), and later returned to work as the diversity program director for the school.

"This angry young man had come full circle," he said about his success. "I told myself if I ever get a chance, I'm going to help people as much as I can."

He said Guard members can help others by talking to young people, and sharing with them the sacrifices made by those in the military. Brooks suggested visiting high schools to talk about the National Guard, and to challenge youngsters to become an active participant in their communities.

"Share with them the sacrifices you've had to make. It will arouse the consciousness of our young people help them connect with our country," he said.

"It starts with you," he continued. "If you believe in yourself, then you can be somebody that others believe in."

Posted by Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy,
Social Media Manager, Oregon Military Department

Photos by Tech. Sgt. Jeff Thompson,
Editor-in-Chief, The Oregon Sentinel

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