How Black troops lost out in bid to sever Army post’s Confederate ties

In the effort to rename Fort Gordon, community leaders in Augusta, Ga., declined an opportunity to elevate a person of color. They picked their own finalist: Dwight Eisenhower.

A congressional commission presented ten soldiers as finalists to rename Fort Gordon. Top: Alexander Augusta, Freddie Stowers, John Aiso, Charles Chibitty, Jose Lopez. Bottom: Humbert Versace, Milton Lee, William Bryant, Mildred Kelly, Emmett Paige Jr. (Courtesy of the Naming Commission)

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 January 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 also 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.”

The finalists for Fort Gordon’s new name and their amazing stories

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 he 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.

New monument honors service of Black Americans in 12 U.S. wars

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.

José López, 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.

The finalists for Fort Gordon’s new name and their amazing stories

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 the get-go that 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.”

‘A sense of prominence’

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.

Army continues to honor Confederate unit histories, even as base names draw scrutiny

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 rebutted that claim, telling The Post that 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.

Why Army posts were named after Confederate traitors

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 probably 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.”

An ongoing conversation

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, Woodard 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.”

Editing by Andrew deGrandpre; Photos by Demetrius Freeman; Photo editing and production by Max Becherer; Copy editing by Brandon Standley.

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