Civilian and military leaders honored Black Illinoisans’ long-standing service to the state National Guard and the career of Gen. Richard L. Jones on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the armory in Washington Park to his memory.
He was born in Albany, Georgia, graduated from the University of Cincinnati and studied law at the University of Illinois before enlisting in the Army during World War I. Between the world wars, he helped found a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, and managed both The Chicago Defender and the Chicago Bee.
He earned the Legion of Merit for service in the Illinois National Guard during World War II, assisted with the desegregation of the armed forces after the war and retired as a one-star general in 1953. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him U.S. Ambassador to Liberia in 1955, and he served four years. In 1970, five years before his death, Mayor Richard J. Daley proclaimed a day in his honor and renamed the Washington Park Armory for him.
Today, the spartan Art Deco armory, built in 1931 at the corner of Cottage Grove Avenue and 52nd Street, is the active headquarters for two guard units: the 2nd Battalion 178th Infantry and the 122nd Field Artillery Battalion.
The 178th Infantry dates back to a segregated 1871 militia organization in Chicago called the Hannibal Guard and is a descendant of the "Fighting Eighth," the United States' first all-Black national guard unit, commanded by Black officers. Their World War I service is memorialized by the Victory Monument at 35th Street and King Drive; Jones was its first commander after desegregation.
"Gen. Jones, a decorated World War I and World War II hero who ensured the lineage of the nation's first all-Black and all-Black-led National Guard unit would not be lost in the integration of the armed forces,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “He ensured that the 178th Infantry carried on the legacy of the Fighting Eighth at a time that their country still refused to serve Black Americans like him. The Fighting Eighth battled valiantly for the freedom and justice that they themselves were denied.
“As a nation, we are still in pursuit of that full vision for all of our people, though it's a commitment that has advanced with each generation who takes up the fight."
Retired Col. Eugene Scott, a 28-year member of the Army and himself a former publisher of The Defender, noted that Illinois was the only state to send an all-African American fighting unit commanded by Black officers, the Eighth, to fight in France during World War I.
"Now you know that upset some people in the army," he said. "But the brave leadership of Illinois, as it did in those days, continues to shine. The relationship between these soldiers, the Illinois National Guard, and our community, is second to none.
Going forward, Scott urged the state and guard to continue recruiting Black boys and girls to enlist. "It has so much to offer, but so many of them are unaware of what you have to offer," he said."
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st), another Albany, Georgia, native, recalled his own service in the U.S. Army — "four years, five months, 28 days and about 13 hours, couldn't wait to get out, because I wanted to join the Civil Rights Movement" — on the Project Nike missile defense system in the Chicago Defense Area at Hyde Park Boulevard and Lake Shore Drive.
"The National Guard has a deep and rich history with the African American community that dates back to 1871, but the influence of Black soldiers in the military can be traced back to the Revolutionary War, when at least 25,000 African American soldiers fought on both sides," he observed.
"A lot of work has been done … and a lot of work still needs to be done." He noted that nearly 43% of the armed forces are people of color, but people of color are not proportionately represented among four-star generals and admirals. "As a member of Congress, I dedicate myself to making sure that we have more Blacks, more Asians, more Latin Americans who are in the top echelon of all the military branches of our nation.”
For his part, Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, who commands the Illinois National Guard, urged attendees to remember that the guard is part of the South Side's fabric, especially during a year when the phrase "send the National Guard to Chicago" has been heard more than once.
"Early on, this community and its leaders fought to have their unit included in the state militia, what today is now considered the Illinois National Guard,” he said. “From the establishment of the Hannibal Guard in 1871, it took nearly seven years for this African American unit to be accepted into the state militia in 1878.”
"The leaders of this community would simply not be denied the rights and privilege to be a part of the state militia, even with that privilege meaning that they had to defend their state and nation in an armed conflict. And that's exactly what they did.”