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West Point Confronts Its Racist Past

August 23, 2017, 5:42 PM UTC

While the world was busy talking about removing Confederate memorials, a new and long overdue monument was completed and celebrated. A joyous occasion, it was largely overshadowed by the events in Charlottesville.

The new Davis Barracks, which will house 650 cadets in a granite-studded 287,000 square foot facility, was recently unveiled at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School. First announced in 2015, the building manages to thread a very difficult needle: It cements the legacy of an exceptional military leader the Academy helped create, but not in the ways one might typically expect.

In 1936, Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. became the first black West Point graduate of the 20th century. He went on to lead the 332nd Fighter Group during World War II; his pilots escorted bombers on 200 air combat missions over Europe, into some of the Nazi Luftwaffe’s most entrenched areas. Under Davis’ command, his group, colloquially known as the Red Tails (and part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen) never lost a bomber.

But as a student at West Point, he was shunned, every day, for four years. He was not assigned a roommate. He took his meals and studied alone. He rode the bus to events alone. His fellow students routinely turned their backs to him. These details form a side of history nobody would be proud of, and yet West Point has done the world a service by acknowledging the disgraceful treatment of a promising young man who sought to serve.

“He had to be perfect in order to get to the next level of his career,” says his grandson in this moving and unflinching video produced by West Point for the occasion. It’s a reality that will be familiar to many of you.

Last Friday, some of Davis’s family members were on hand for the celebration.

“When we talk about diversity in culture, this moment was it,” says Doug Melville, the Chief Diversity Officer for advertising giant TBWA. Melville is a relative of Davis who attended the emotional ceremony, along with his own father, Academy cadets, and other military luminaries. “Our family cut the ribbon and unveiled the first monument on campus named after a person of color,” he told Fortune by email.

A commitment to diversity seems to run in their family. That there continues to be a need for it, runs in all of ours.

The Davis Barracks joins a rarified group of important buildings named for famous West Point graduates, including the generals Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and yes, Robert E. Lee. Since the terrible events of Charlottesville, the calls to have the Lee barracks renamed have been growing. But Lee wasn’t just a graduate, he was also the Academy’s superintendent from 1852-1855. It’s going to be an interesting debate.

That’s an oblique way of saying that of course, there is much more work to do. But in these difficult times, it’s worth letting General Davis and his family enjoy the spotlight for a spell, as he is remembered by an institution who played an outsized role in causing him unnecessary pain. (Again, the video is quite stirring.) Davis took the best of what was available to him and turned himself into a leader of unflagging dedication and courage, which is a beautiful legacy to share with the cadets who will now sleep under his roof.

For the rest of us, the new memorial offers a small measure of proof that the gratitude of a nation will not ever be diminished by the truth.

On Point

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Racist public symbols are everywhere, but you knew that
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The Guardian

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UK to Twitter: Stop the hate speech already
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The Woke Leader

Pakistan hates Malala
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Foreign Policy

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New York Times

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[White southerners] are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.
—President Dwight Eisenhower