FORT LIBERTY, NC – Fort Bragg shed its Confederate namesake on Friday and became Fort Liberty in a ceremony that some veterans called a small but important step in making the U.S. military more welcoming to current and future black service members.
The change was part of a broader Department of Defense initiative motivated by the George Floyd protests in 2020 to rename military installations that were named after Confederate soldiers.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that erupted across the country after the killing of Floyd by a white police officer, combined with the ongoing effort to remove Confederate monuments, have drawn attention to military installations. A naming commission created by Congress visited the bases and met with members of the surrounding communities for input.
“We were given a mission, and we accomplished that mission and made ourselves better,” Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Liberty, told reporters after the ceremony that made the name change official.
While other bases are being renamed after black soldiers, US presidents and trailblazing women, a military installation in North Carolina is the only one that hasn’t been renamed after a person. Retired US Army Brig. Gen. Ty Seidul said at a commission meeting last year that the new name was chosen because “freedom remains America’s greatest value.”
“Fayetteville in 1775 signed one of the first treaties declaring our willingness to fight for liberty and freedom from Great Britain,” Donahue said, referring to the town adjacent to the base. “Freedom has always been rooted in this sphere.”
The cost of renaming Fort Bragg – one of the largest military installations in the world by population – will be about $6.37 million, according to the commission’s report.
Providing an updated figure Friday, Col. John Wilcox said the cost of the name change is now about $8 million. Most of the front signs have been changed, but the process is ongoing.
“The name changes, the mission doesn’t,” base spokeswoman Cheryl Rivas said Friday morning before the ceremony.
Fort Polk in Louisiana will be the next facility to change its name to Fort Johnson on June 13 in honor of Sgt. William Henry Johnson.
The North Carolina base was originally named in 1918 for General Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general from Warrenton, North Carolina, who was known for owning slaves and losing key Civil War battles that contributed to the downfall of the Confederacy.
Several military bases were named after Confederate soldiers during World Wars I and II as part of a “demonstration of reconciliation” with white Southerners amid a broader effort to rally the nation to fight as one, said Nina Silber, a historian at Boston University.
“It was kind of a gesture of, ‘Yes, we recognize your patriotism,’ that it’s absurd to recognize the patriotism of people who rebelled against the country,” she said.
Members of the local communities were involved in the initial naming process, although black residents were not part of the conversations. Bases were named after soldiers who were born or raised nearby, regardless of how effectively they performed their duties. Bragg is considered by historians to be a bad leader who did not command the respect of his troops, Silber said.
For Isiah James, senior policy officer for the Black Veterans Project, renaming the base is a “long overdue” change that he hopes will lead to more significant improvements for black service members.
“America should not have the vestiges of slavery and separatism and celebrate them,” he said. “We don’t have to praise them and hold them and honor them because every time a Black Soldier walks into the base they get the message that this Bragg base is named after someone who wanted to leave you as human property.”
By law, the Secretary of Defense has until January 1, 2024, to make the changes proposed by the naming commission.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Reporting for America is a nonprofit national outreach program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues.