Tinker commander shares childhood experiences at Vance Black History luncheon

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  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- She grew up during the 1970s in Gordon, Georgia, where the schools were integrated, but her social world, the high school homecoming queen and even her prom, were very segregated.

She asked her father why there was so much hate for black people. His one-word answer -- “ignorance.”

Col. Stephanie Wilson, commander of the 72nd Air Base Wing at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, shared childhood memories with more than 75 Team Vance members attending the Black History Month luncheon Feb. 25 in the Collocated Club here.

The luncheon theme “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memory,” tied in with an event from Wilson’s past that influenced her outlook on life.

When she was 8 years old, she went to the Wilkinson County (Georgia) courthouse with her father. While there, she noticed a plaque near some concrete doors that led underground. To the side of the plaque was a lit torch.

“It was the site of a slave-trading post,” Wilson said. “Behind the doors was a slave holding area. That torch was meant to be an eternal flame to help us always remember and honor the memories of what had happened there.”

The colonel walked away from the courthouse that day conflicted. “The torch was intended to help us remember. But in reality, I wanted to forget,” she said. “I wanted to forget and not face the reality that my ancestors probably spent hours, possibly days in that underground chamber, shackled and degraded, waiting to be traded like cattle.”

She decided, then and there, to live her life to its full potential. She would honor people like Harriot Tubman, the Tuskegee Airmen, Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine. “I did not want to disappoint the generations of heroes whose individual actions had literally changed our nation,” said Wilson.

Wilson, as an African-American senior commander in the U.S. Air Force, told those attending the luncheon, “I stand before you today, unencumbered by many of the constraints of the past, because of these heroes who refused to accept ‘No’ for an answer.”

The luncheon began this year with an a cappella version of the national anthem performed by Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Calhoun and Staff Sgt. Jessica Dillon.

Staff Sgt. Deja Kiziah served as the emcee for the ceremony.

Chaplain (Capt.) Eugene Ansah delivered the invocation.

He was followed by introductions of distinguished guests at the luncheon, which included Bob Sandlin, the 72nd ABW director of staff and Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Christopher, the 72nd ABW command chief.

The lunch menu included fried chicken, garlic mashed potatoes and gravy, collard greens, cornbread and peach cobbler.

Following lunch, Rhonda Patton, Senior Airman Raymond Ward, Senior Airman Tameka Turner and Staff Sgt. Ebony Simmons presented brief histories of significant sites in the African-American memory.

Teja Speight, 14, currently an eighth grader in Wichita, read her winning essay written while she still lived in Enid. According to Yvonne Lewis-Odom, when Teja won the essay contest, she promised to come back to the Vance Black History luncheon to present the essay.

Her essay discussed the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- racial equality -- and what individuals can do to help it come true.

The essay ended with a quote from King’s “Where do we go from here?” speech delivered at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, 1967.

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great of a burden to bear.”

Col. Kristen Benford, 71st Medical Group commander, then introduced Wilson, the guest speaker.

Wilson concluded her presentation with a challenge for those at the luncheon.

“I challenge you to remain hopeful, to remain steadfast. To be always ready, to lead boldly, on the battlefield and off. To remain vigilant.

“I also challenge you to continue the same level of commitment that brought you into this room today,” said Wilson.

Col. Clark Quinn, 71st Flying Training Wing commander, closed the luncheon with words of thanks for all the guests who attended, the Club staff that prepared the meal and the team that organized the luncheon and all the events held during Black History Month.