First African American Colonel

Colonel (Col.) James Abernathy:

Col. Abernathy was born in Van Buren, Arkansas, and graduated from Van Buren Senior High School in 1961. He was awarded a Bachelor of Science Degree in Elementary Education from Arkansas Polytechnic College in 1968. He received his Master’s Degree in Elementary Education in 1973 from Northeastern State College/University.

In 1968, Col. Abernathy began his teaching career with the Fort Smith Public School System. For twenty-five years, he taught fifth and sixth graders at Howard Elementary School in a self-contained setting. During his teaching career, Col. Abernathy received numerous awards to include Teacher of the Month, Outstanding Teacher Award, Who’s Who Among American Teachers and The Golden Apple Award, presented by the Fort Smith Classroom Teachers Association.

Col. Abernathy began his military career in the U.S. Army when he volunteered for the draft in 1961. He attended basic and advanced individual training at Fort Chaffee Military Reservation. After which, he served with the Army in Bamberg, Mannheim, and Berlin, Germany until he left active duty in 1963. After leaving active duty in 1963, he joined the 95th Training Division in Fort Smith, Arkansas where he remained until his discharge in 1968. His military education included Officer Education and Training Course, Air Command and Staff College, Reserve Forces Course, Public Affairs Officer Course, Air War College Course, National Security Course, and the Officer Personnel School.

Col. Abernathy’s military service with the Arkansas Air National Guard began in 1974 in which he served as the Drug Abuse Education Non-Commissioned Officer as a traditional Guardsman at the 188th Fighter Group. After achieving the rank of Technical Sergeant, he was offered a commission. After receiving his commission, he served as the Base Education and Training Officer until 1990. In October 1990, he became the first African American and first Arkansas Air National Guard Commander of the newly formed National Guard Marksmanship Training Unit at Camp J.T. Robinson.

In 1993, Col. Abernathy also served as the Military Personnel Management Officer for Headquarters, Arkansas Air National Guard. In that position, he provided staff assistance, guidance, policy, and direction concerning Air National Guard personnel, administration, training, recruiting, retention, and budgetary matters to the executive support staff. He was also responsible for investigations and representing the department on congressional and other high-level inquiries.

In 1999, Col. Abernathy served as the Public Affairs Officer, Headquarters, Air National Guard, Little Rock Air Force Base. Col. Abernathy’s outstanding professional skill, leadership and devotion to people resulted in major contributions to the effectiveness and success of men in the Arkansas Air National Guard’s program. He led by example and paved the way for many recruiting opportunities among the youth of the state, and authored programs that greatly enhanced the civilian community’s understanding of the National Guard’s mission.

Col. Abernathy was promoted to the rank of Colonel on March 30, 2000, and became the first African American Colonel in the Arkansas Air National Guard. His maturity, leadership, loyalty, and dedication to duty were displayed at every level of assignment in the Enlisted Force and Officer Corps during his thirty-six-year military career. Col. Abernathy retired from the Arkansas Air National Guard on June 10, 2003.