Black History Month Spotlight: Dwight Deneal, director of DLA’s Office of Small Business Programs
by: US Department of Defense
Editor’s Note: February is Black History Month. This is one of several stories running throughout the agency to highlight African Americans serving among DLA’s worldwide workforce.
Tyre Nichols died in a Memphis, Tennessee, hospital Jan. 10, three days after police pulled him over for a traffic stop.
Body camera footage released to the public shows police officers brutally beating Nichols, a Black man and father of a 4-year-old son. His family told reporters that Nichols was beaten so severely he was unrecognizable.
Dwight Deneal, director of Defense Logistics Agency’s Office of Small Business Programs, said Nichols’ death reminds him of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It’s important to tell the next generation that they can’t simply stand by when acts of injustice occur, he said.
“Speak up, speak out and voice your concern for your fellow American citizen,” he said.
Deneal grew up facing oppression and is already preparing to teach his 1-year-old son some difficult lessons.
“Now that I have an African American son, it is my responsibility to help him understand sometimes there are people in this world and in this country who won’t view you as equal, who won’t hold out their hand to help you,” he said. “It’s not right, but it’s OK. You still have to press forward. You still have to ensure that you control your own destiny, and you don’t allow oppression to win.”
The theme for Black History Month 2023 is Black Resistance. African Americans were often denied opportunities, so they had to resist to overcome those barriers, Deneal said.
“We didn’t have the right to vote, so we had to resist that and fight for it. We historically didn’t have the right to buy houses in certain areas, so we had to resist and fight for it,” he said.
Growing up in South Carolina
In 2001, when Deneal was a high school junior, he was part of a group of African Americans trying to convince officials to remove a confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse dome. People dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes came out to oppose their actions.
“That was my first ever real-world experience with someone who would hide themselves behind such attire that has done such atrocities across this country,” he said. “I remember that vividly. I think that shaped me to acknowledge that oppression is here. There are still folks within our community who don’t see us as equal and who want to marginalize our experiences and keep us in certain places.”
Deneal was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a self-proclaimed southern gentleman at heart. His mother taught him the importance of understanding his heritage and adding to its legacy. When he was a child, he participated in Black History Month pageants every year, reading a poem or speech from icons like King or Malcom X.
He learned the importance of family, too. He is one of over a dozen grandchildren on his father’s side of the family. Holidays were always a big family production – literally – as the kids put on a Christmas show every year. Rehearsals started after Thanksgiving, and the shows included singing Psalms and Christmas carols, he said.
“These are things for us, over generations, that we want to pass down within our family,” he said.
Those holiday shows also helped him develop a love of the arts. He served as the chair of the African Continuum Theater Company, a nonprofit organization and Washington, D.C.’s oldest professional Black theater company, for four and a half years.
One of his most memorable experiences in that role was partnering with Howard University and Project One Voice to stage a free reading of the play “Four Little Girls” about four African American girls who lost their lives in an Alabama church bombing during the civil rights movement. Actress Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” directed the free reading at the Kennedy Center.
“It was the best experience to walk up to the Kennedy Center and see a line wrapped around the building of folks across the community lining up to get a free ticket to hear this play reading,” he said.
Running the nonprofit theater company taught him skills that help with his work at DLA.
“I learned a lot about how to run a business, which I think has helped shape me into the strong small business federal advocate and leader that I am today,” Deneal said.
College and fraternity life
Deneal attended Hampton University, a historically Black university in Virginia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business management. He was the first man in his family to attend college.
Attending Hampton is a cherished life experience, and he values the education and friendships he made at the school, where former DLA Director Army Lt. Gen. Darrell Williams is now president.
“It was important for me to go to a historically Black college because it was an opportunity to learn about who I am amongst those who are like me and also headed on the same path as me,” he said. His mother graduated from South Carolina State University, another historically Black school.
Deneal is also a graduate of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government Executive Education Program and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first and oldest intercollegiate African American fraternity.
The organization shaped him into a giving person who is nurturing to his family and his community, he said. Advice from his fraternity brothers even helps him be a better father to his son and a daughter who will be born later this year, he added.
“That's really what the fraternity itself is all about, building on the bond of brotherhood, developing leaders, and ensuring that we are always putting our community, whether it be the African American community or the community at large, first so that we are bettering the world,” he said.
Reflecting on life as an African American man
At 38 years old, Deneal is one of the younger leaders at DLA. He said it isn’t lost on him that his age, youthful appearance and skin color may have caused people to have assumptions or make judgements about him as he’s climbed the ranks of civilian service.
“The very harsh nature of being an African American is you are constantly taught through generational culture norms, ‘You have to work and be twice as good as others who don’t look like you, only to get half as far,’” he said.
He continues to pay tribute to his heritage in different ways. In the 1990s, his aunt helped him start collecting postage stamps featuring African Americans. His favorite is the Harriet Tubman stamp, and he said he hopes to share his collection with his children when they get older.
Though he doesn’t yet have a stamp, basketball legend Michael Jordan is one of Deneal’s personal heroes.
“His demeanor and the way he trained himself to be the best was something I always thought about,” he said. “I’d ask myself, ‘How do I get in that Jordan mentality? How do I ensure that I’m pushing and striving to be the best that I can and win at what I’m doing every day?’”
While the theme of this year’s Black History Month is resistance, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African Americans throughout history. It’s a time to remember what African Americans have overcome and note the work that still needs to be done, Deneal said.
“We are more than just entertainers or athletes,” he said. “We are leaders in all trades and vocations. We are thinkers, we are inventors, we are business owners, and we are government leaders. We should celebrate all of that and acknowledge that because we add value to not only the African American community, but America at large.”