Col. Dennis Woodfork Juneteenth Speech

  • Published
  • By Col. Dennis Woodfork II
  • Space Base Delta 1, individual mobilization augmentee to the Commander

Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow airmen and guardians.  Today I’d like to start out by telling you a story…

In the 1930s there was once a boy named Henry who lived with his family in Talulla, Louisiana.  One morning, Henry woke up to find his father gone.  Henry was the oldest of 6 children which was important because his mom, Katie, didn’t have an education or any chance of getting a well-paying job where they lived in Tallulah due to racial and gender barriers.  So without a Father in the house, Henry soon realized that he had to step up and bring in money to help his family survive as the oldest child.  He dropped out of school after the 6th grade and started working at the same mill as his father did before his disappearance.  He later found out that his father, Henry, Sr., was run out of town by a lynch mob who was set on hanging him for not minding his place as a negro in the community.  The Black community had raised money to get Henry, Sr. out of town before the mob could take him.  Henry, Jr. worked to support his family as the “man” of the house…a “man” with an 6th grade education.  His life lessons for working hard to put food on the table came way too early.  Fast forward 17 years… Henry, now a man, moved to CA looking for opportunity in the 1950s.  He found it by working hard on the docks of Oakland, CA as a long shoreman. Henry soon saved enough money to start his own painting company business.  During this time period, Henry married and had a daughter, Marsha, who grew up with more privilege and opportunity than he could have ever dreamed of as a child.  Marsha attended private schools and worked her way up to become a senior manager at a fortune 500 company.  All this without ever finishing college.  Marsha was imbued with a hard work ethic from her father and she carried that forward throughout her life despite facing her own gender and racial hurdles.  Eventually, Marsha had a son who dreamed of going to the stars one day.  Marsha worked hard to give her son opportunities that she could never dream of.  She told her son that he would have to work twice as hard to get equal recognition in this world.  She also emphasized the importance of getting an education because quote, “It’s the one thing that no one can take away from you.”  The son internalized this and eventually went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering and then two master's degrees in Astronautical Engineering and Business Administration.  He’s the first one in his family line to graduate from college.  He used his education to build a career as both a military officer and Aerospace Engineer.  The teachings of his mother and grandfather afforded him the opportunity to build and operate the nation’s preeminent space systems.  And now, he uses those teachings from generations past to raise 4 kids of his own.  I stand before you to proudly claim that this is my story.  I am the son who benefited from the struggles and victories over racial inequality of my forbearers.  This is my Juneteenth story.   

All over America there are hundreds of African American families like mine who use Juneteenth to reflect on both the sacrifices made by our ancestors and the opportunities that lay ahead of us for our progeny.  “Onward and Upward” is the theme that I hold most dear to me on Juneteenth.

“Onward and Upward” to me encapsulates the entirety of Juneteenth.  Consider the origins of America’s newest federal holiday.  The Congressional Research Service details that on June 19th, 1865, Maj Gen Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  Although the Emancipation Proclamation came 2 ½ years earlier on January 1, 1863, many enslavers refused to recognize this Presidential decree.  So June 19th, 1865 is largely a symbolic end to the slavery era.  Indeed, the word Juneteenth comes from conjoining the words June and 19th.  The celebrations of Juneteenth began in 1866, when Texas communities began celebrating by holding parades, cookouts, prayer gatherings, musical performances, and other cultural festivities to commemorate the end of slavery.  Despite the fact that slavery was still active until about 1867 and former slave owners sought to suppress this festival, the tradition eventually spread to other communities across the country as African Americans emigrated from Texas to other states and territories.  Juneteenth is a celebration.  A celebration of freedom and the promise of a brighter future.  Onward and Upward. 

You might ask, “Why should I celebrate Juneteenth if I’m not African American?”  Well to this, I would respond that Juneteenth is a celebration of our country’s journey to becoming a more perfect union.  I think of it as a celebration of when we first began to truly uphold the spirit of America.  A spirit that was penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Onward and Upward.

So don’t think of Juneteenth as a celebration exclusively for African Americans.  If you look back in history, there were heroes, both white and black who helped emancipate the slaves.   In addition to African American giants like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, we also have to remember activists like John Brown a white abolitionist who gave his life to the anti-slavery movement and was eventually hanged for treason.  Some historians note that John Brown’s actions served as an inspiration and catalyst to the North and slaves during the Civil War.  It is said that Harriett Tubman said of Brown after he died, John Brown did more for American blacks than Lincoln did.  The heroes of the emancipation movement made “Onward and Upward” a calling.  In the decades following slavery African Americans faced terrible hatred, violence, and an aggressive movement to keep them repressed, uneducated, and in bondage (both literally and figuratively).  Despite these trials and tribulations, our ancestors continued to make onward and upward a cultural mantra.  If you set foot in a Black household both today and in decades past you would hear mothers and fathers telling their kids, “To endure the toils of being Black in America – you must first educate yourself  and then work endlessly to ensure your children and your children’s children have more opportunity than you did.”  Onward and Upward

So my friends, Juneteenth is a celebration of American’s slow but inexorable journey towards liberty and equality for all.  An undying quest to ensure that all peoples are able to climb onward and upward.  To each of us, Juneteenth should be meaningful.  If you’re African American, Juneteenth should inspire you to honor those who came before you.  You honor them by doing your best to make sure that the next generation is highly educated.  It also serves as a reminder to Black America that we should stand tall and proud of the rich contributions we have made to this American experiment – from the days of slavery to the present, our forebearers gave their: intellect, talents, and sometimes even their lives in service to this country.  We should never forget our achievements that span from space exploration, to music and performing arts, to medicine, to high-level government office, and of course military service.  And yet, in the 159 years that have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation, there is still so much more to do and so much more that we can contribute to America as a people.  My fellow African American Brothers and Sisters, do your part to make sure that the next 159 years will be even greater for Black America and a testament to our enslaved ancestors' faith, pain, and perseverance.  Onward and Upward.

However, I do not want to leave out my non-Black American brothers and sisters.  If you’re not African American, Juneteenth should be celebrated as America’s victory of good over evil in the pursuit of a more perfect union.  If you’re a military member, Maj Gen Granger’s actions in 1865 should serve as a reminder that American service members should be symbols of freedom and equality both at home and abroad. 


As I conclude, I’d like to leave you with one more thought.  Here in Colorado Springs, we stand in the cradle of our nation’s sixth service, the US Space Force.  For both guardians and airmen serving the Space Force, our solemn duty is to use the ultimate high ground to enable the United States to stand for liberty and equality across the globe against the forces of tyranny and oppression.  Here at Space Base Delta 1, we use the stars to help guide our space systems so that they can faithfully execute their missions – stellar navigation if you will.  At the same time, I think about stellar navigation from another time.  Think about all of those brave slaves, desperate for freedom, who hid by day and escaped by night to get to the North.  History tells us that many of those slaves used the North Star, or Polaris, to make their way North.  They did this by tracing the handle of the Big Dipper constellation, to find Polaris – stellar navigation.  Indeed, they traipsed onward to freedom and looked upward to the stars to guide their path.   How special is that juxtaposition…today… in this place? Just as then, we use the stars as a beacon for freedom and equality.  So join me today in celebrating Juneteenth – not just a Black holiday, but an American holiday.  Let’s celebrate together, that calling….. to press onward and upward

Aim High and Semper Supra.

Thank you!