GHS celebrates African American History Month

Published 3:00 am Friday, February 23, 2018

Goshen High School celebrated African American History Month Wednesday afternoon in the New Gymnasium.

The program for the celebration featured quotes from Booker T. Washington, founder and first president of Tuskegee Institute in nearby Tuskegee. “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else” and “Associate yourself with people of good quality for it is better to be alone than in bad company.”

It would seem that Col. Teresa Townsend, Army, Ret. had chosen those quotes specifically for her African American History address to the GHS students.

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Townsend told the students that African American history is the history of America and the diversity of America should be celebrated.

She mentioned familiar names of those who helped shape the United States Army and lay the foundation for a diverse military, names including George Patton, John McCain, Chappie James and Colin Powell.

However, Townsend focused on a rather unfamiliar name, Cathay Williams, in her efforts to challenge the students to step outside the box and depend on themselves and their abilities to accomplish the goals they set for themselves.

Cathay Williams was the first known African American woman to enlist in the United States Army and the only African American woman documented to serve in the US Army in the 19th century.

Cathay Williams was born a slave in Independence, Missouri. She worked as a house servant on a nearby plantation near Jefferson City.

Townsend said, when the Civil War began, Union Forces occupied Jefferson City. Slaves were considered contraband and were usually pressed into service supporting the military. At age 17, Williams was forced to work as a cook and washerwoman for the army.

“After the Civil War, there were few employment opportunities for African-Americans, especially in the South,” Townsend said. “Many of them looked to military service where they could earn steady pay. Cathay had a cousin and a friend who enlisted. She decided that in order to earn a living she would enlist, too.”

Women were not allowed to serve in the military at the time, so Williams disguised herself as a man.

“She switched her first and last names and enlisted as William Cathay,” Townsend said. “Almost two years after she enlisted, it was discovered that she was a woman and she was discharged.”

To make ends meet, Cathay Williams did odd jobs as a cook, laundress and seamstress. She wanted to make it on her own. She did not want to burden her friends or relatives, Townsend said.

“Cathy was simply trying to earn a living in a difficult time. She never knew she was making a mark on military history.”

Townsend told the GHS students that if they want to do extraordinary things, there would be risks involved.

“You must decide in the benefits outweigh the risks,” she said. “Create the life that you want for yourself and prepare for what you want to do. But remember, the world does not owe you anything. You owe it to yourself. Don’t become dependent on someone else. Don’t think less than who you are. Step out of the box because today America is on an ever-increasing playing field. Success depends on you.”