FORT BRAGG, N.C. (WTVD) -- A message of unity rang strong during the redesignation ceremony for Fort Liberty:
A new sign on base Friday morning signified a new era for the military institution in Cumberland County formerly known as Fort Bragg.
"This is Fort Liberty. You're looking at it," said Lt. Gen. Chris Donahue of the XVIII Airborne Corps. "It's veterans. It's members of the community. It's Gold Star parents. It's active duty. It's all of you."
The program included a 15-gun salute, an uncasing of the garrison colors and music.
Patti Elliott, the Gold Star mom who inspired leadership to rename the installation Fort Liberty in honor of her son's service, said she hopes he is proudly looking down from heaven.
"He knew we lived in the greatest country there was, and he wanted to preserve that and ensure that his kids would have that also," Elliott said. Her son died while serving in Iraq in 2011.
Fort Bragg is the only out of nine US military installations being redesignated that is being renamed after a value, rather than a person.
Elliott said the installation's naming commission had to fight to make that happen.
"When we set up that our choice that our choice was 'liberty,' they fought back and said, 'You can't do that. You have to name it after a person,'" Elliott said. "And Gen. McNeil said, 'No, we don't. So he stood up for that and made sure that the voice and the reasoning that we had come up with persevered."
Fort Bragg shed its Confederate namesake to become Fort Liberty on Friday morning. It's a change that some veterans view as a small but important step in making the U.S. Army more welcoming to current and prospective Black service members -- and it's a change that was vehemently opposed by others.
Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Allen, who was the CSM of the Iraq War, said this change is long overdue.
"It's the people that made Fort Bragg what it is, not the name Bragg. And all of us have come through Bragg, and the whole idea was to make Bragg not only to do the, you know, our nation's bidding in times of war but also to make Bragg a better place for the next generation of then-Braggmenites that will come through here. So, I think that the name Liberty is very fitting to what we've been doing or have done all these years," he said.
The change is part of a broad Department of Defense initiative, motivated by the 2020 George Floyd protests, to rename military installations bearing the name of Confederate soldiers.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that erupted nationwide after Floyd's killing by a White police officer, coupled with ongoing efforts to remove Confederate monuments, turned the spotlight on the Army installations. A naming commission created by Congress visited the bases and met with members of the surrounding communities for input.
The North Carolina base was originally named in 1918 for Gen. 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 Confederacy's downfall.
Several military bases were named after Confederate soldiers during World War I and World War 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.
For Isiah James, senior policy officer at the Black Veterans Project, the base renamings are a "long overdue" change he hopes will lead to more substantial improvements for Black service members.
"America should not have vestiges of slavery and secessionism and celebrate them," he said. "We should not laud them and hold them up and venerate them to where every time a Black soldier goes onto the base, they get the message that this base Bragg is named after someone who wanted to keep you as human property."
James, a former U.S. Army infantry squad leader who served at Fort Cavazos near Killeen, Texas, which was previously named Fort Hood for Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, described a permissible climate of racism that affected him deeply during his military service.
He recalled feeling like a "circus freak" when his platoon leader made him take pictures on patrol with people who had "never seen a big Black guy before."
When he first joined the Army, James said, his drill sergeant would make him get down on his knees to talk to him because he didn't want a Black man standing over him.
James said he did not realize his base was named after a Confederate general until after his military service and expects many soldiers at Fort Bragg were similarly unaware.
"I don't think it'll have much of an effect on young soldiers," he said of the name change. "But I think it has a collective effect on society. America does a lot of things wrong, but sometimes we get things right, and this is one of them."
And now it's a new era for one of the largest military installations in the country.
"Fort Liberty speaks to the history of the past, it talks to those who are serving now, and it's a beacon of the future," said Retired Maj. Gen. Rodney Anderson of the XVIII Airborne Corps.
The cost to rename Fort Bragg will total about $6.37 million, according to a commission report.