Buffalo celebrates Black service members with historic monument dedication

For the first time in history, Black veterans are getting a monument to acknowledge their service and contributions in the U.S. military.

The African American Veterans Monument was unveiled Saturday in Buffalo, New York, to honor Black veterans and active-duty military service members both past and present. The monument serves as a permanent marker recognizing the contributions of African Americans who served in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines and the Coast Guard.

Military members, veterans and city and state officials, including New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, gathered in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, the largest naval park in the country, for the unveiling ceremony. The event came two days after the anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the document issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862, that set a date for the end of slavery.

Image: Visitors at the African America Veterans Monument in Buffalo, N.Y. (Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park)
Image: Visitors at the African America Veterans Monument in Buffalo, N.Y. (Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park)

Robin Hodges, the vice chairman of the African American Veterans Monument, said the monument is a unique way to honor Black veterans like Ronal Bassham, 90, who joined the Air Force at 17 and served in the Vietnam War. Bassham, who retired in 1975, was at the event.

“The African American Veterans Monument will enhance visitors’ understanding of the diversity in the armed forces throughout American history,” Hodges said. “Visitors will experience a shared history which includes significant achievements of African Americans in all branches of the armed forces.”

Designed by the late artist Jonathan Casey, the concrete monument is made up of 12 black pillars stretching 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide. The pillars are in chronological order marking the 12 wars Black soldiers served in: from the American Revolution in 1775 to the current war on terrorism. The spacing between pillars is also significant, as it represents the times of peace between one war and the next.

Visitors will be able to buy a commemorative brick, which can be placed in the ground around the pillars with details of living service members and those who have died engraved on them.

The project has been years in the making. It was commissioned in 2014 by the Erie County Chapter of the Links Inc., a Black women-led organization that serves the Buffalo community to affect health, education and welfare. After it was announced in 2016, organizations throughout the Buffalo community have helped fund it.

Madeline Scott, who serves on the African American Veterans Monument committee, said it’s rare that successful military efforts by Black military units, like the Buffalo Soldiers and the Harlem Hellfighters, are recognized and taught in schools. She said she hopes the monument will shed light on their service and contributions.

“This monument serves as a source of pride to the generations of African Americans who served this country with honor but often returned to civil life without the support given to other veterans and opportunities afforded to others,” she said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com