Fort Bragg has shed its Confederate namesake to become Fort Liberty in a ceremony that some veterans said was a small but important step in making the United States Army more welcoming to current and prospective Black service members.
The change on Friday was part of a broad US Department of Defense initiative, motivated by the 2020 George Floyd racial justice protests, to rename military installations that had been named after Confederate soldiers.
The prevalence of statues and sites honouring members of the Confederacy, many of whom were slaveholders, has remained a persistent and controversial issue in the US as discussions about the country’s legacy of racism continue.
The Confederacy was a group of 11 Southern states that seceded from the Union in 1860. The desire of these states to preserve the institution of slavery was a primary motivation for secession and the root cause of the subsequent US Civil War.
While Confederate statues were erected across the US, most are concentrated in southern states that fought for the Confederacy during the war, which lasted from 1861 to 1865 and killed more than 600,000 people.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that erupted nationwide after Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, coupled with continuing efforts to remove Confederate monuments, turned the spotlight on the Army installations.
A naming commission created by the US Congress visited the bases and met with members of the surrounding communities for input.
While other bases are being renamed for Black soldiers, US presidents and trailblazing women, the North Carolina military installation is the only one not renamed after a person.
Retired US Army Brigadier General Ty Seidule said at a 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 Lieutenant General Christopher Donahue, the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Liberty, 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 $6.37m, according to a commission report.
“The name changes, the mission does not change,” base spokesperson Cheryle Rivas said on Friday morning before the ceremony.
Fort Polk in Louisiana will be the next installation to change its name on June 13 to Fort Johnson, in honour of Sergeant William Henry Johnson.
The North Carolina base was originally named in 1918 for General 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.”
The secretary of defense is required by law to implement the naming commission’s proposed changes by January 1, 2024.