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How Black troops lost out in bid to sever Army post’s Confederate ties

The unexpected renaming 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.Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post

AUGUSTA, Ga. — 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.

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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.

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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.

‘’I don’t think it meets the intent of the naming commission,’’ said Parin Amin, a longtime Augusta resident. He was invited to last year’s meeting but not the smaller one this spring, he said, and characterized the list of participants in April as ‘’not very representative of the community.’’

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a Georgia native who, like Eisenhower, was an Army general, issued a memo to Pentagon leaders fully concurring with the commission’s recommendations and ordering their implementation pending a 90-day waiting period required by Congress. Austin is the first African American to attain the military’s top civilian post.

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.

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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.

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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.

Army pilot Kimberly Hampton, who was killed in action during the Iraq War, was not on the list of 10 finalists presented to the Augusta community. She and Eisenhower were late additions ahead of the commission’s final report.