ARLINGTON, Virginia –
Before Command Sgt. Maj. John Sampa became the 12th command sergeant major of the Army National Guard and the first Black person to hold that position in 2018; he stood guard as a Texas State Trooper to defend a hate group’s right to free speech in 1998.
He shares a photo of this scene – himself in front, protecting three hooded individuals, protesting during the murder trial of white men accused of dragging a black man to death behind a truck – to emphasize the importance of duty, no matter the situation.
“You’ve got to remember why you put the uniform on,” Sampa said. “It isn’t to take sides, and it is to serve. I was there to serve the people of the state of Texas at that time, and it was my duty.”
As the senior enlisted leader of the Army Guard, he was responsible for protecting the rights and freedoms of all Americans.
For the first time, the three senior enlisted leaders for the National Guard were Black, according to National Guard Bureau historians. This includes Sampa for the Army Guard; Command Chief Master Sgt. Maurice Williams, for the Air National Guard; and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau Tony Whitehead.
Each man has taken a different path to his respective position, but all arrived through determination and fortitude.
“We find ourselves in the positions we are because people didn’t give up,” Whitehead said. “It’s inspiring and motivating to have the opportunity to work with [Sampa and Williams], but I would say it was not by design that we happen to be Black. We’re here because we’ve done the work to get here, and we’ve earned the right to be here. Then, of course, the inherent responsibility that comes along with it is to make sure we set others up for success.”
Whitehead grew up in the South and joined the Air Force in 1982. He transitioned to the Florida Air National Guard in 1994 and has seen people throughout his career with great talent and character be discounted because of direct, or covert, racism.
“You can only overlook people for so long before you realize that you’re damaging an institution,” he said. “We have missed out on some great people because we haven’t thought in terms of equity and equality.”
Williams referred to a quote from Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chief of staff of the Air Force and the first Black service chief: “We are not the first to be qualified for our positions, we are just the first to be given the opportunity.”
This quote resonated with Williams, as he is the second person of color to serve in his position as the highest-ranking enlisted Airman in the Air Guard.
“When I see other Black senior leaders in the military, I feel a sense of pride because I know some of the challenges that they have endured to reach their positions,” Williams said. “This is important because we need to have a diverse group of people at all levels in our military to be strong.”
The contributions of Black service members are central throughout the history of the United States, dating to the Revolutionary War. However, leadership opportunities for Black service members were sparse. A 1925 Army Memorandum stated that “the negro man…is admittedly of inferior mentality and inherently weak in character.” The armed forces did not fully integrate people of color until after World War II, and few were elevated to senior leadership roles.
Whitehead said he and other Black service members owe a debt of gratitude to their military predecessors, such as the Buffalo Soldiers – comprising all-black cavalry and infantry regiments in the 19th Century – and Tuskegee Airmen, a group of primarily black military pilots who fought in World War II.
“When I think about the struggles and injustices of my ancestors, I still sit in awe of their vision – especially those who served in the armed forces,” said Whitehead. “Sometimes, it can get emotional for me thinking about how things were then. Yet, they were still willing to fight for this country. To know that they were fighting for a country that only welcomed them in a subservient role probably seemed strange to some.”
Whitehead said their service paved the way for him and other Black service members today. The contemporary military landscape now includes diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts DoD-wide, and he embraces the changes.
“I think if you look at any other institution other than [the military], you won’t see as much of an opportunity for equity as ours,” Whitehead said. “We have to continue down this path that we’re on. Because if we want our organization to be the absolute best that we can, we must stop thinking in terms of how some people have felt, or feel, about people of color.”
Williams agreed and said that it would take deliberate steps and honest dialogue to address and overcome prejudices.
“Members in the National Guard must be intentional on practicing racial equality by having uncomfortable conversations about race and being intentional on addressing problems within their formations,” Williams said.
Sampa, who is relinquishing his role as the Army Guard command sergeant major has served for nearly 35 years of service, said it was an awesome responsibility and honor to serve as the top enlisted Soldier in the Army Guard as the first Black person to do so. He said people should be valued based on their merit, capabilities, and potential, above all else. He reflected on the younger man in the photograph, standing guard in front of a hate group to protect their rights to freedom of speech.
“I took an oath, and you know, my sense of duty just took over,” he said. “And I still feel the same way.”