African-American Tomb Guard recalls journey (guest post)
6 years ago
ARLINGTON, Va. -- In honor of African-American History Month, Fred Moore, the first African-American Tomb Guard, recalled his journey from serving as a firing party member in Honor Guard Company in 1960, to making history a year later.
When Moore entered the Army in 1959, it was an unsettling feeling. It wasn't because he was drafted. It wasn't because he didn't have a desire to serve his country. It wasn't even the tension rising in Vietnam. Moore was an African-American Soldier entering the service during the Civil Rights Movement.
"I had three older brothers who had been in the service, and the advice they gave me before I left was to keep my mouth shut and don't volunteer for anything," Moore said jokingly.
But Moore, determined to find his own way, volunteered for service in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), a decision which catapulted him into history.
Moore admits he wasn't very familiar with The Old Guard, but a series of good scores on the Army entry test, or more so his stature, made him a good candidate.
"The officer at the reception station said you're 6 foot 1, 185 pounds. You're the right size for what they're looking for," Moore recalled.
Before he could give one more minute's thought, Moore agreed to join The Old Guard.
"I was in Honor Guard Company assigned to the 3rd platoon," said Moore. "We performed most of the burials at Arlington National Cemetery. We did parades and different ceremonies in Washington, Fredericksburg and all around Maryland. We were the number one firing team."
Moore acknowledges he was a well-known Soldier in the regiment, not so much for the accolades his team was receiving around the region, but for the team's distinct difference.
"I was obvious wherever I went," said Moore. "I was the only black on a military firing party. The officers would come up and they would tell me, 'We see you and you're doing a good job.'"
This statistic would prove to be in Moore's favor in the form of a visit from President Kennedy and a Ghanaian president.
"When President Kwame Nkrumah came from Africa and he and Kennedy were laying a wreath at the tomb, he asked Kennedy why he didn't see anyone of color," said Moore.
Shortly after, Moore was directed to report to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for training. Moore distinctively remembers the brotherhood he established right away with his counterparts. Despite being the only African-American there, no one ever treated him differently.
"They all treated me very, very fairly," said Moore. "You can't make it as an individual. It's got to be teamwork. You always need somebody to help you put your uniform on and make sure it's straight in the back, patting it down for lint and stuff like that."
However, on a crisp autumn morning in March of 1961, as Moore stepped onto the marble floor to perform his first walk as an official Tomb Guard, his brothers-in-arms kept an important secret from him.
"I didn't know at the time that I was breaking the color line. They didn't tell me that until after, which I think was a good idea," said Moore. "It was enough pressure just being a Tomb Guard. They thought it was best if I didn't know until after it happened."
Looking back, Moore admits it was never about making history as the first African-American Tomb Sentinel, but fulfilling the mission.
"It was a job that I was given, and I just considered it a great honor" said Moore. "I was always of the mindset that if I was given something to do, I was going to do it to the best of my ability."
Today, Moore's humility remains his central point, although for sentinels who have served after him, he is a celebrity in his own right.
"I was really surprised the first time I went back for the Tomb Guard reunion. I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. They knew me but I didn't know them," said Moore, referring to the attention he received from Soldiers currently serving at the Tomb.
Moore was shocked to learn what all the commotion was about.
"They said you're an answer to a question on the test of who is the first African-American to serve at the Tomb," said Moore.
Sentinels must take a detailed 100-question test, in addition to other tasks, in order to earn a Tomb Guard badge.
"I think it's a little much," laughed Moore. "When young guys talk to me about being the first, I tell them I just took the opportunity that was afforded to me, but you guys are taking it to another level so I am more proud of you all then I am of myself."
Moore's greatest wish, however, is that Soldiers today not dwell on his monumental accomplishment but find an inner drive in themselves.
"I hope it gives them the confidence that they can do anything they set their mind to do," said Moore. "I'm not anything special. Certainly if I can do certain things, they are capable of doing even greater."
Mr. Moore shares a laugh with a fellow Tomb Guard at the 2014 reunion.
Support the Society
The Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS) is able to provide our programs, events, assistance, scholarships, and services due to the generosity of its members, organizations, and individuals. SHGTUS does not receive institutional funding. Note: The Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a 501(c)(3) organization, so your contributions may be fully tax deductible.
Did you know?
How many Sentinels have been female?
There have been over 680 tomb guards awarded the badge since 1958 when we started counting. There are hundreds more from the year 1926 when the Army started guarding the Tomb. The 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard) is the unit that has been given the duty of guarding the Tomb. It was given this sacred duty in 1948. The Old Guard was -- and still is -- considered a combat unit. As an Infantry unit, females were not permitted in the ranks for many years. It wasn't until 1994 that females were permitted to volunteer to become a Sentinel when the 289th Military Police Company was attached to the Old Guard. The MP branch is a combat support unit and includes females.
In 1996, SGT Heather Johnson became the first female to earn the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. She volunteered for duty in June 1995 and earned her badge in 1996. However, SGT Johnson was not the only female Sentinel. Since then, there have been a total of five female Sentinels awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge:
SGT Danyell Wilson earned
her badge in 1997
SSG Tonya Bell received hers in 1998
SGT Ruth Hanks earned her badge in June 2015
SFC Chelsea Porterfield earned her badge in 2021
Several other units have since been attached to the Old Guard -- food service, transportation, medics, etc. -- so now females have an ever greater opportunity to become a Sentinel. Females must meet the same requirements as the male soldiers to be eligible to volunteer at the Tomb. the only difference is that females have a minimum height of 5'8" -- which is the same standard to be a member of the Old Guard.