Alex Horton, Washington Post, October 7, 2022
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.”
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.
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.
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.