By HANNAH SCHOENBAUM
Associated Press/Report for America
FORT LIBERTY, N.C. (AP) — Fort Bragg shed its Confederate namesake Friday to become Fort Liberty in a ceremony some veterans said was a small but important step in making the U.S. Army more welcoming to current and prospective Black service members.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that erupted nationwide after Floyd’s killing by a white police officer, coupled with ongoing efforts to remove Confederate monuments, turned the spotlight on the Army installations. A naming commission created by Congress visited the bases and met with members of the surrounding communities for input.
“We were given a mission, we accomplished that mission and we made ourselves better,” Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Liberty, told reporters after the ceremony that made the name change official.
While other bases are being renamed for Black soldiers, U.S. presidents and trailblazing women, the North Carolina military installation is the only one not renamed after a person. Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule said at a naming commission meeting last year that the new name was chosen because “liberty remains the greatest American value.”
“Fayetteville in 1775 signed one of the first accords declaring our willingness to fight for liberty and freedom from Great Britain,” said Donahue, referring to the city adjacent to the base. “Liberty has always been ingrained in this area.”
The cost to rename Fort Bragg — one of the largest military installations in the world by population — will total about $8 million, Col. John Wilcox said Friday. Most front-facing signage has been changed but the process is ongoing.
“The name changes, the mission does not change,” base spokesperson Cheryle Rivas said Friday.
Fort Polk in Louisiana will be the next installation to change its name June 13 to Fort Johnson, in honor of Sgt. William Henry Johnson. The naming commission’s proposed changes must be implemented by Jan. 1.
The North Carolina base was originally named in 1918 for Gen. Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general from Warrenton, North Carolina, who was known for owning slaves and losing key Civil War battles that contributed to the Confederacy’s downfall.
Several military bases were named after Confederate soldiers during World War I and World War II as part of a “demonstration of reconciliation” with white southerners amid a broader effort to rally the nation to fight as one, said Nina Silber, a historian at Boston University.
“It was kind of a gesture of, ‘Yes, we acknowledge your patriotism,’ which is kind of absurd to acknowledge the patriotism of people who rebelled against a country,” she said.
The original naming process involved members of local communities, although Black residents were left out of the conversations. Bases were named after soldiers born or raised nearby, no matter how effectively they performed their duties. Bragg is widely regarded among historians as a poor leader who did not have the respect of his troops, Silber said.
For Isiah James, senior policy officer at the Black Veterans Project, the base renamings are a “long overdue” change he hopes will lead to more substantial improvements for Black service members.
“America should not have vestiges of slavery and secessionism and celebrate them,” he said. “We should not laud them and hold them up and venerate them to where every time a Black soldier goes onto the base, they get the message that this base Bragg is named after someone who wanted to keep you as human property.”
James Buxton Jr., a U.S. Army veteran and president of the Fayetteville chapter of the NAACP, said he supports the base renaming. Buxton said he has seen the effects of racism associated with the base over the years — including the killing of a Black couple in the 1990s by soldiers in the 82nd Airborne who were neo-Nazis.
But Buxton also called the new choice of name Fort Liberty “off the wall.” He said he would have preferred the base retain the name Bragg but be redesignated to honor Edward S. Bragg, an accomplished U.S. lawmaker and Union general in the U.S. Civil War.
At last week’s “All American Week,” a celebration of the 82nd Airborne Division and one of the last major events under the Fort Bragg name, several veterans expressed mixed feelings about the name change.
Gregory Patterson, 64, a former member of the 82nd Airborne, who served in the Army from 1977 to 1999, joined scores of veterans for the celebration. Patterson said he understood why they changed the name, but in his mind, the name is associated with the place, not the person — and specifically as the home of the 82nd Airborne.
“I’m still gonna call it Bragg, even though the person that they named it after wasn’t a good person,” he said.
Mark Melancon, 63, who served from 1983 to 1990, wore a t-shirt that read “Born at Benning, Raised at Bragg.” Fort Benning, in Georgia, was renamed Fort Moore last month.
Asked about the change to Fort Liberty, Melancon replied: “We’re not thrilled about that. It’s always gonna be Bragg, the way we look at it.”
The Bragg name, Melancon said, conjured up strong feelings and memories. “Home. The camaraderie that we had. The brotherhood.”
Staff Sgt. James Fannin of the 82nd Airborne Division said the new name doesn’t change anything for the paratroopers who volunteer to jump out of a “perfectly good airplane” behind enemy lines at any time.
“Changes at the base have no effect,” he said. “All that matters is the patch on my left shoulder.”
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Associated Press writers Jason Dearen and Michelle Smith contributed to this report.