How Black troops lost out in bid to sever Army post’s Confederate ties
The Washington Post October 7, 2022
AUGUSTA, Ga. — In the waning days of his presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed a formation of troops at the Army post here, making a brief stop while en route to the city’s other garrison: Augusta National. “I have long been wanting to visit Fort Gordon,” the celebrated general said, thanking them for supporting more than two dozen of his golf outings through two terms in the White House.
That was 1961. Sixty years later, after the murder of George Floyd inspired a sweeping reexamination of race in America, Congress directed the Pentagon to abolish all remaining vestiges of the military’s Confederate heritage, and rebrand its nine bases that continue to honor enslavers and secessionists such as Fort Gordon’s namesake. A renaming commission was appointed, describing its mission in part as a chance to better reflect the ranks by recognizing more people of color and women.
Five Black soldiers — a repudiation of John Brown Gordon himself — were among the diverse slate of 10 finalists presented to Augusta-area leaders in April. In the end, however, the commission chose to go in another direction entirely and rename the base after Eisenhower — bypassing the five Black candidates and other groundbreaking people of color.
That idea gained traction only after last-minute lobbying from some of the meeting’s attendees, according to people familiar with the gathering. Jim Clifford, city administrator for neighboring North Augusta, recalled someone suggesting Eisenhower would be a more desirable alternative and then “pretty much everyone else piled onto that.”
The unexpected outcome has both perplexed and rankled others who believe the selection of a prestigious White man is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst a failure of the renaming commission’s goal to not merely kill off the military’s racist relics but to elevate minorities in the process. Detractors say it looks like a bid to capitalize on Eisenhower’s association with Augusta National, a longtime symbol of racial division that did not admit its first Black member until 1990, nearly six decades after the golf course opened.
Bill Allison, a military history professor at Georgia Southern University, called it “a chamber-of-commerce-y decision.”
It is unclear how many people attended the April meeting, though a list obtained by The Washington Post shows 18 people RSVP’d yes, including 10 current or former military officials and four congressional staffers. That made it a more exclusive affair than an initial discussion, held in July 2021, to which nearly 40 area leaders — including minority groups, historians and business owners — were invited.
The legacy of Eisenhower, who led Allied forces against Nazi Germany and as president signed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, is not in dispute. But people familiar with the renaming process have questioned whether his selection is a true reflection of the Augusta community’s desires and diversity, or a coup for a select, influential few with other aims.
“I don’t think it meets the intent of the naming commission,” said Parin Amin, a longtime Augusta resident. He was invited to last year’s meeting but not the smaller one this spring, he said, and characterized the list of participants in April as “not very representative of the community.”
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a Georgia native who, like Eisenhower, was an Army general, issued a memo to Pentagon leaders fully concurring with the commission’s recommendations and ordering their implementation pending a 90-day waiting period required by Congress. Austin is the first African American to attain the military’s top civilian post.
This account is based on interviews with 17 people either directly involved in or familiar with the renaming commission’s work, a sprawling effort projected to cost $62 million, and encompass name changes for naval vessels, buildings and streets, in addition to the nine Army posts. Even as some cast doubt on the integrity of the renaming process in Augusta, several said that, in the end, Eisenhower is a sound choice, one that honors a respected statesman. As Amin put it, “Progress is progress.”
Augusta-Richmond County, with a population exceeding 200,000, is nearly 60 percent Black, according to U.S. census data. The Civil War’s reverberations are felt everywhere here, including along Broad Street, a major thoroughfare slicing through downtown, where the city’s 76-foot tall Confederate monument presides. Local officials have struggled with a decision, recommended in the wake of Floyd’s slaying, to bring down the marker.
Fort Gordon, on Augusta’s southwest side, is home to about 17,000 military personnel. It was named for Gordon, a trusted commander under Robert E. Lee who later served as a senator and governor of Georgia. He opposed Reconstruction after the war.
The renaming commission had said that “ideally” its recommendations would have “some affiliation” with either the state where the base is located or its mission. Several proponents of Eisenhower’s selection characterized his relationship with Fort Gordon as extensive, but historical accounts suggest otherwise.
Eisenhower’s first visit to the post was on his 29th and final trip to Augusta as president, an exception to his preference for avoiding military ceremonies during his golf outings. Records maintained by his presidential library and other archives indicate he officially visited Fort Gordon only once more, in 1965, to receive medical care after suffering a heart attack while at Augusta National.
Eisenhower died in 1969. In choosing him, the commission disregarded its own list of finalists representing some of the most distinguished soldiers in Army history.
Jose Lopez, born in Mexico, used a machine gun to cut down about 100 Germans assaulting his position during World War II.
Humbert Versace, of Puerto Rican descent, was captured by Vietnamese forces and held for two years. He repeatedly tried to escape and defied his captors by singing “God Bless America.” He was later executed.
Both were recognized with a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for combat valor.
Other finalists were nods to Fort Gordon’s communication mission. Charles Chibitty, a Comanche, trained at then-Camp Gordon and later landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, transmitting unbreakable messages in his native tongue. Emmett Paige Jr. became the first Black general in the Signal Corps.
The shortlist included William Bryant, a Black Special Forces soldier posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor following a 34-hour fight to defend his camp from an onslaught by Vietnamese forces; Mildred Kelly, the first Black woman to attain the rank of sergeant major; and Freddie Stowers, a Black corporal who in World War I took command after more-senior leaders had been killed and led a ferocious charge against the enemy until he too fell.
Army pilot Kimberly Hampton, who was killed in action during the Iraq War, was not on the list of 10 finalists presented to the Augusta community. She and Eisenhower were late additions ahead of the commission’s final report.
In a statement, retired Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, the commission’s vice chair, defended its approach to collecting community input and navigating what he called “local sensitivities,” saying it was clear from get-go there would never be total consensus.
“However,” he said, “no matter the feelings on any of the recommended names, we’re confident that each of them comes with a story that can be told with pride by those connected to these bases, because they all reflect the unmatched courage, values and sacrifices of the brave men and women serving in our Army.”
Susan Eisenhower, the late president’s granddaughter, said she was not involved in the renaming discussions and was unaware of any family members who were. Those conversations were part of a process that have national and local stakeholders, she told The Post. “These decisions,” Eisenhower said, “belong to the American people.”
The nine installations slated for rebranding were built during the first half of the 20th century in former Confederate states — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia — and each was christened with input from segregationists who lionized the South’s fight to preserve slavery.
Congress created the renaming commission over objections from some Republicans, including then-President Donald Trump, who viewed such change as an affront to “Great American Heritage.” Retired Adm. Michelle Howard, a Black woman and the Navy’s first female four-star officer, was made the group’s chair.
Four of the commission’s nine base-renaming recommendations, announced in May, would for the first time bestow such an honor on women and African Americans. The selections also include a Native American and a barrier-breaking Hispanic general.
Fort Bragg in North Carolina is set to be reflagged as Fort Liberty, the only proposed change that does not recognize an individual — and the only other instance where community members diverged from the commission’s slate of finalists.
Military installations double as economic engines for nearby cities. They offer civilian jobs, feed retail businesses and buoy real estate markets. That also is true for the Masters Tournament, held every April in Augusta, which some local businesses call the “13th month” for the explosion in visitor spending.
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. said in an interview that Eisenhower’s name is familiar within the community, including on Fort Gordon, where the hospital already is named for him. Fort Gordon’s cyberwarfare mission has helped make Augusta a tech destination, contributing to growth in a region where nearly a quarter struggle with poverty. Associating a former president at the heart of that, Davis said, is a positive development.
“For Augustans, it’s also about maintaining a sense of prominence,” he said. “Everybody knows Eisenhower.”
Fort Gordon officials, who coordinated much of the community outreach in Augusta, said the process was inclusive. A request to join the April meeting was sent to the group whose feedback was solicited last year, said Lesli J. Ellis-Wouters, a spokesperson.
Seven people who participated in the initial meeting refuted that claim, telling The Post they never received invitations to attend follow-up discussions. Several said they were unaware of the finalists, or that a meeting to discuss them was held.
One is Calvin Thomas, an Army veteran who served at Fort Gordon and mentors Black youth in Augusta. He said he supports Eisenhower’s selection, though, because of the former general’s remarkable rise to the presidency from humble origins on the Kansas prairie. The other finalists were distinguished, Thomas said, but Eisenhower “accomplished more than all the other candidates.”
Another is Jessica Wright, a local activist, who suggested that Eisenhower’s name likely resonated more in Augusta’s wealthier, Whiter suburbs than in the city itself. She called it a comfortable choice for people resistant to change. “There had to be a compromise,” she said, noting her disappointment but lack of surprise that it appears the process was tilted to satisfy a select few. “That’s how things go around here,” Wright added, “behind closed doors, with handshakes among the good ol’ boys.”
The debate has highlighted the Augusta community’s ongoing conversations surrounding the legacy of white supremacy.
The Confederate monument on Broad Street still stands despite wide opposition. It bears a likeness of Berry Benson, a local Confederate soldier who is said to have walked home from Virginia rather than witness the South’s surrender in 1865. The inscription says: “No nation rose so White and fair ... none fell so pure of crime.”
Across the river in North Augusta, an obelisk erected in 1916 stands in a manicured park to honor the only White man who died in the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, when a White mob confronted Black state militiamen. It would take a century before another marker was installed to recognize the seven Black men killed.
On a recent weekend at Eisenhower Park, not far from Augusta National, parents watched their children field grounders on the baseball diamond. A woman who lives across the state line in South Carolina said she was upset with the effort’s cost. She declined to provide her name to avoid being criticized for her views.
Such a focus on the past was distracting and wasteful, she said, adding, “I don’t get mad about there being a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.”
John Hayes, a history professor at Augusta University, said the commission did not have to look far for local inspiration.
He recounted the story of Isaac Woodard, a Black enlisted soldier discharged from then-Camp Gordon after serving in the Pacific. In February 1946, Woodward stepped into the cold Augusta air to board a bus. When the driver called him “boy,” Woodard — still in uniform and emboldened by his service in a war against fascism — responded: “I’m a man just like you.”
The driver stopped the bus and notified police. White officers dragged Woodard away, plunging the end of a blackjack into his eyes. He was blinded for life.
The incident, and the police chief’s eventual acquittal, helped convince President Harry S. Truman to take action on civil rights. Two years later Truman ordered the military’s complete desegregation, making Woodard’s journey from Camp Gordon one of the most historic moments of the 20th century.
Mimi Kirk, John Brown Gordon’s great-great-great-granddaughter, said she supports renaming the base to rectify the glorification of a man “who spent his life in service to white supremacy and the violent oppression of Black Americans.”
One of the finalists, Alexander Augusta, was a surgeon for an all-Black unit in the Union Army, placing a steady hand on his patients while White doctors lobbied to have him removed. The racism he encountered on a Washington streetcar led to their desegregation.
Such a contrast to her ancestor, Kirk said, “strikes me as a more meaningful and thoughtful choice.”
The finalists for Fort Gordon’s new name and their amazing stories
A panel of military experts, established by Congress to expunge all remaining vestiges of Confederate heritage within the U.S. military, has recommended that Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., be rebranded Fort Eisenhower.
The post’s current namesake, John Brown Gordon, was an enslaver and secessionist. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a celebrated general who led the Allies’ defeat of Nazi Germany before serving two terms as president, was the commission’s selection.
In reaching that choice, the commission disregarded its own list of finalists, a diverse collection of 10 lesser-known but no less impressive soldiers, bowing to a last-minute campaign from within the community to choose a figure with greater name recognition.
Army pilot Kimberly Hampton was not on the list of 10 finalists presented to the Augusta community. She and Eisenhower were late additions ahead of the commission’s final report.
These are their stories:
1. Alexander Augusta
Augusta, born in Virginia, trained as a doctor in Canada. He answered the call for service after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, becoming the Army’s first Black doctor. Augusta served as a surgeon for the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry before White physicians objected, leading to his reassignment as director of a hospital for African Americans. The racism he encountered on a streetcar in D.C. led to their desegregation. And in another first, Augusta’s postwar appointment to teach at Howard University made him the first Black medical school faculty member in the United States.
2. Freddie Stowers
In 1918, Stowers and fellow soldiers in his segregated infantry company led the assault on Hill 188, a fortified German position in the Ardennes region of France. The Germans, using white flags as a ruse, fired on the advancing troops, killing or wounding half, including many leaders. Stowers, a corporal, took command, leading his men to capture a trench and destroy a machine gun position before he was killed. His Medal of Honor, awarded more than 70 years later in 1991, paved the way for other Black soldiers long denied the nation’s highest combat recognition.
3. John Aiso
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the loyalty of Japanese Americans was unfairly questioned, leading to mass incarceration in internment camps. Aiso, who was a trained lawyer, was initially assigned menial duties in a motor pool. But officers noticed his acumen and tapped him to be the director of a Japanese language school. The program, which would aid in enemy translation and interrogations, trained 6,000 people. Aiso, the highest-ranking Japanese American during the war, later served as a judge for an appellate court in California.
4. Charles Chibitty
Chibitty trained during World War II at then-Camp Gordon, where he and other Comanche radio operators used their native language to construct a lexicon the Germans could not crack. He landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, where he sent a coded message to a colleague in an approaching boat: “Five miles to the right of the designated area and five miles inland, the fighting is fierce, and we need help.” He later served in the Battle of the Bulge. Chibitty was the last surviving Comanche code talker from World War II.
5. Jose Lopez
Lopez, born in Mexico, bought a fake birth certificate to join the Merchant Marine Academy before enlisting in the Army In December 1944, after his unit came under fierce infantry and armor attack, Lopez lugged a heavy machine gun into a shallow hole and cut down waves of Germans, allowing his comrades to fall back. Alone in the biting cold and under heavy artillery fire, Lopez killed at least 100 enemy soldiers and only stopped firing when he ran out of ammunition. He received the Medal of Honor and later served in Korea.
6. Humbert Versace
Versace, an Army officer of Puerto Rican descent, laid down cover fire for his comrades during an ambush in Vietnam in 1963, allowing some to escape before he was captured with serious wounds. Over the next two years, Versace attempted numerous escapes and openly defied his captors, stirring the morale of his comrades at the cost of isolation, torture and starvation. Soon before his execution, Versace was heard singing “God Bless America” in one of his final acts of protest. His remains were never recovered. Versace was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2002, a rare recognition for a prisoner of war.
7. Milton Lee
In 1968, during some of the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam War, Lee was a 19-year-old radio operator whose unit came under attack by enemy forces concealed in bunkers. Half of his platoon was killed or wounded, and Lee moved through heavy fire to render aid. He passed his radio to another soldier and charged single-handedly toward enemy fighters preparing an ambush, killing four of them. He was severely wounded attacking another position, and crawled forward to keep firing until succumbing to his wounds. Lee was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
8. William Bryant
Bryant, a Special Forces soldier, was leading a small team in south Vietnam in 1969 that became cornered by three enemy regiments. Outmanned, he gave aid to the wounded, led several teams on counterassaults and braved enemy fire to distribute ammunition during the 34-hour test of endurance and will. Bryant led a small group in an attempt to break free of the siege. He was wounded but directed fire and mounted another assault before he was killed in action. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
9. Mildred Kelly
Kelly enlisted in 1947, before the military was desegregated, and quickly rose through the ranks at a time when White men often questioned the leadership of women and minorities. She broke barriers by attaining the rank of command sergeant major and by serving as an enlisted leader of an Army post with a predominantly male population, the commission noted. Kelly’s work and advocacy in retirement contributed to the construction of the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
10. Emmett Paige Jr.
Paige dropped out of school at 16 and enlisted in 1947, a year before the military was integrated. His perseverance earned him a commission as a Signal Corps officer, leading him to service in Korea and Vietnam. Paige oversaw the design and implementation of communication systems vital to Army operations in Southeast Asia. He was the first Black Signal Corps officer to reach the rank of brigadier general, and later served in the Pentagon as a senior official overseeing communications and intelligence.
11. Kimberly Hampton
Hampton realized her childhood dreams and became a Kiowa helicopter pilot, excelling as a leader in a male-dominated field. She served in Afghanistan before her tour of duty in Iraq. In 2004, her aircraft was shot down while providing cover fire for friendly forces near Fallujah. She was the first female pilot in U.S. history to be killed in combat.