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Veterans Health Administration

National African American History Month

African American soldiers from the Civil War stand in front of a tent

African American soldiers from the Civil War

Profile: Dr. John A. Kenney

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Newsprint image of Dr. John A. Kenney

At a time when patriotic duty was challenging racial discrimination, Dr. John A. Kenney was a leader for the African-American health care providers in the former Veterans Administration (VA).

Dr. Kenney began his career as a practicing physician in the backwoods of Alabama at the turn of the 20th century.

When VA put plans in place to build a separate hospital for African-American Veterans returning from the First World War, Dr. Kenney was a strong advocate for an all-African-American staff — from the doctors to the groundskeepers.

Conflicts over the race of the hospital staff escalated. In 1923, the Ku Klux Klan set a burning cross in Dr. Kenney’s lawn and the doctor fled Tuskegee with his family.

From his new home in New Jersey, Dr. Kenney worked with members of the National Medical Association and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to lobby the VA and the President for control of the hospital. Their efforts convinced the government that there were enough competent African-American physicians to staff and administer the Tuskegee VA Hospital.

Dr. Kenney’s advocacy for African-American health care providers in VA would be continued by his son, Dr. Howard W. Kenney.

After serving as the director of the Tuskegee VA Hospital from 1959 to 1962, Dr. Howard W. Kenney would be appointed the first African-American director of a VA hospital not originally designated for African-American patients only.

“During National African American History Month, we recognize the extraordinary achievements of African Americans and their essential role in shaping the story of America. In honor of their courage and contributions, let us resolve to carry forward together the promise of America for our children.”

—President Barack Obama

The Veterans Health Administration is proud to join the nation in celebrating African American History Month in February.

This year’s theme, “African Americans and the Civil War” honors the efforts of people of African descent to destroy slavery and inaugurate universal freedom in the United States. The theme, chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, urges all Americans to study and reflect on the value of African American contributions to the nation.

Around the country VA Medical Centers are marking the month with special programs and ceremonies.

The Atlanta VA Medical Center is celebrating the month with “A Walk in Black History Month,” a Unity Breakfast with motivational speaker Minister Michael McCoy and a Cultural Cookoff.

Their month-long salute concludes on February 23 with a Black History Month Symposium with Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute, featuring keynote speaker Colonel Bill Sanders, a U.S. Air Force Veteran.

At each event, Atlanta Medical Center staff members have participated in the “Employee Book Drive for Veterans,” with all donations given to Veteran patients and their families.

At VA headquarters in Washington D.C., the Black History Month Committee hosted a Black History Month Observance Program featuring guest lecturer, Jason Steinhauer, historian with the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

Origins of African American History Month

In 1915, educator and historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson undertook the task of writing Black Americans into the nation's history by founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which was later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It was through this organization that Negro History Week was first celebrated in 1926 and subsequently, Black History Month was established in 1976.

Dr. Woodson chose the second week of February for Negro History Week because it marked the birthdays of two people who had greatly impacted Black Americans' lives: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

February has much more than Douglass and Lincoln to show for its significance in Black history. For instance:

  • February 23, 1868: W.E.B. Dubois, an important civil rights leader and cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was born.
  • February 3, 1870: The 15th Amendment was passed, granting blacks the right to vote.
  • February 25, 1870: The first black U.S. senator, Hiram R. Revels (1822-1901), took the oath of office.
  • February 12, 1909: The NAACP was founded by a group of concerned black and white citizens in New York City.
  • February 1, 1960: In what would become a milestone in the civil rights movement, a group of black college students from Greensboro, North Carolina staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter.

To learn more about this year’s theme: “African Americans and the Civil War,” see the special Library of Congress website.