Goodbye to Fort Bragg
It is still Fort Bragg.
But only until June 2.
Then North Carolina’s mammoth U.S. Army base will become Fort Liberty.
Still, it will always be Fort Bragg in my memories.
My first experience in a racially integrated work situation was in ROTC summer camp at Fort Bragg in 1961. I was the product of a segregated secondary and college education. It was different at Bragg. Not only were there many Black cadets in my company, but the regular army lieutenant colonel in charge of us was Black. He was a wonderful leader.
I remember the welcome speech he gave on our first day. He gathered his cadets around. We were scared to death, and he told us the story of Fort Bragg, and how it came to be named for a military leader, a general in the Confederate army named Braxton Bragg. I thought many years later that he must have had to bite his tongue because Bragg had fought to keep Blacks in slavery.
Many of the Black cadets were potentially superior future officers. They prepared me, as the Army of the 1950’s and 1960’s prepared hundreds of thousands of other southern men, for the changes to come in civilian life in North Carolina.
I arrived at Fort Bragg as a White boy who had never gone to school with Blacks, never eaten in the same restaurant, never drunk at the same water fountain, never rode in the same section of a bus or a train–and put me right beside some of the best people I ever met (not all my same color). I was never the same.
When I left that summer, I don’t want to say I was free of racism, but I was a changed person. I rejoiced in the diversity that Army life brought me and the great strength that came from mutual trust and respect. And I knew that the principal beneficiary of the opening of doors of opportunity was me.
If our nation is ever successful in completing its task of erasing racism, intolerance and injustice, the armed forces and particularly the Army and Fort Bragg must be given due credit.
The Army has led the way.
Like many other North Carolinians, I have spent other times at Fort Bragg, including almost two years when I was on active duty, living on Bragg Boulevard.
The most memorable time was on Thanksgiving weekend in 2002 when, as I wrote then, a little after midnight I picked up my son Grier at his Raleigh home, helped carry his heavy gear to my car, waited while he ran upstairs to tell his wife goodbye, get a look at his brand new daughter, and then began our drive to Fort Bragg for the beginning of his long journey to the other side of the world. It was raining as we approached Fayetteville, turned off Business I-95, and then on to Bragg Boulevard, passed the house where I lived as a young Army officer, and then passed by the shopping centers, pawnshops, night spots, mobile home lots, car dealerships and the other strong marks of a military town.
Still under the heaviness of the rain, we came on the base, passing through security where my son returned the salute of the guard, a signal that we would soon arrive at the point of formation, where my son and his traveling companions would gather this early morning to begin their trip to Afghanistan.
I will be happy to call it Fort Liberty from now on, but I will always remember what Fort Bragg has meant for me.
# # # # #
D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch. This column has appeared every week since 1985.