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The Black History of Memorial Day

Another bit of black history and contribution to America…”forgotten”.

Image result for black civil war soldiers

The black history of Memorial Day has been nearly wiped from public memory — here’s the real story

Union General John Logan is often credited with founding Memorial Day. The commander-in-chief of a Union veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, Logan issued a decree establishing what was then named “Decoration Day” on May 5, 1868, declaring it “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Today, cities across the North and South claim credit for establishing the first Decoration Day—from Macon, Georgia to Richmond, Virginia to Carbondale, Illinois. Yet, a key story of the holiday has been nearly erased from public memory and most official accounts, including that offered by the the Department of Veterans Affairs.

During the spring of 1865, African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina—most of them former slaves—held a series of memorials and rituals to honor unnamed fallen Union soldiers and boldly celebrate the struggle against slavery. One of the largest such events took place on May first of that year but had been largely forgotten until David Blight, a history professor at Yale University, found records at a Harvard archive. In a New York Times article published in 2011, Blight described the scene. While it is difficult to pinpoint the precise birthplace of the holiday, it is fair to say that ceremonies like the following are largely erased from the American narrative of Memorial Day.

During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

This story of Memorial Day, also reported by Victoria M. Massie of Vox, was not merely excluded from the history books but appears to have been actively suppressed. The park where the race course prison camp once stood was eventually named Hampton Park after the Confederate General Wade Hampton who became South Carolina’s governor following the civil war.

In 1966, former President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Then, in 1971, Congress established “Memorial Day” as an official federal holiday to honor all Americans who have fallen in U.S. Wars. In an article published in 2013 on Snopes.com, writer David Mikkelson used these official declarations, as well as the decree issued by Logan, to bolster his argument that African-Americans in Charleston probably should not be credited for establishing the holiday. He further noted that numerous other towns and cities claim to have created the first ceremonies. Yet, Mikkelson’s reasoning fails to account for the systematic and proven appropriation, erasure and distortion of African-American history by presidents, lawmakers, generals and scholars alike. The fact that the role of African-Americans is missing from the official record is precisely the problem. At the very least, the contribution of Black people in Charleston has been erased from the public narrative of Memorial Day and deserves to be recognized.

World War II veteran Howard Zinn argued in 1976 that the holiday has since become an uncritical celebration of war-making. “Memorial Day should be a day for putting flowers on graves and planting trees,” he wrote. “Also, for destroying the weapons of death that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources and threaten our children and grandchildren.”

Yet Memorial Day has other troubling modern-day manifestations. Today, while confederate symbols across the United States are increasingly rejected as racist, civil war reenactors still gather in Charleston for a public ceremony, held shortly after Memorial Day, to honor the confederacy on the anniversary of General Stonewall Jackson’s death in 1863. The ceremony is slated to take place next weekend, even after last summer’s white supremacist massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in nine African-Americans were slaughtered.

Charleston officials have taken some small steps towards recognizing the city’s African-American history. Following a community campaign, the city of Charleston finally held its first formal commemoration of the African-American roots of Memorial Day in 2010, and the following year it established a plaque. Yet, the history of former slaves’ efforts to give the union dead a proper burial is missing from the park’s official history, made available online by the Parks Conservancy.

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, told AlterNet, “Many of the issues we have around race are based on the fact that these stories have not been told. It sends the message that the contributions of African-Americans are not valued and respected.”

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2017 in Black History

 

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On This Memorial Day – Remembering Those Who Fought to End Slavery

There are a lot of Southern Myths about the Civil War and Antebellum South, and what life was like in the period leading up to the War. The root of the war was economic. By 1860, over 60% of the GDP, and near 80% of the trade was generated by the South. And just about every penny of that money was built and fully enabled by slavery. It is no mystery why the Articles of Secession by every Southern State lists the cause of their actions as to maintain slavery.

The South was by no means monolithic as the Southern Myth would have you believe. And it was a dangerous place, with rebellion seething just under the surface. One of the few things which kept the slave master’s cruelty in check was the distinct possibility that ol’ Massa might “fall off his horse and break his neck”. There were hundreds, if not thousands of slave rebellions, and the risk was so great that during the Revolutionary War the Southern States supplied few troops to fight the British…Because they were needed at home to keep the slave rebellions in check. The sight of Haitian Troops marching to Savannah to attack British forces holding the city must have sent chills down the spines of Southern slave owners.

Further the South wasn’t monolithic. Large regions, especially the Appalachians, had no real economic ties to slavery, making the western Southern States a battleground between pro and anti-slavery forces. If you examine the maps of the Shenandoah campaign between Union General Phil Sheridan and confederate General Stonewall Jackson, you will find that there are areas conspicuously avoided by the rebs, You will find the same in certain areas of North Carolina. Those areas weren’t “confederate friendly”.

This Memorial Day we should celebrate those who fought to put down the rebellion, and ultimately end slavery. Over 100,000 of whom were white Southerners, and 260,000 of whom were black, often escaped slaves.

100,000 From Dixie Fought for the North in the Civil War

In all the recent debate about erasing Confederate history, no one talks about the history the South itself has erased, such as the many Southerners who fought for the Union.

Earlier this past week a judge ruled that the city of Louisville, Kentucky can proceed with the removal of a Confederate monument near the campus of the University of Louisville. Arguments against removing Confederate monuments over the past year have often claimed that in doing so communities run the risk of erasing history. What has been universally overlooked, however, is that the push to establish monuments to the Confederacy during the postwar years helped to erase the history of those white and black southerners who remained loyal and were willing to give their lives to save the Union.

Southern Unionism took many forms during the Civil War. Some disagreed with the right of a state to secede from the Union at the war’s outset while others grew weary of the Confederacy in response to a number of factors, including a Conscription Act in 1862 that exempted large slaveowners, the impressment of horses or mules for the army, and a “tax-in-kind” law that allowed the government to confiscate a certain percentage of farm produce for military purposes. Others in places like Appalachia and other highland regions that included few slaves saw little value in supporting a government whose purpose was the creation of an independent slaveholding republic.

Resistance to the Confederacy also took many forms throughout the war. The release of the movie, The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey next month, will introduce audiences to Newton Knight, who led an armed rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. Some joined clandestine political organizations such as the Heroes of America, which may have contained upwards of 10,000 members. Networks of communication kept resistors in touch with one another and their activities throughout the region. Unionists risked arrest by Confederate officials, ostracism from within the family, and violent reprisals from the community.

It is impossible to know just how many white southerners remained loyal to the Union during the war given disagreements over its very definition, but we do know that somewhere around 100,000 southern white men from Confederate states, except for South Carolina, served in the U.S. military. East Tennessee supplied somewhere around 42,000 men, but other Confederate states yielded significant numbers, including 22,000 from Virginia (and West Virginia) and 25,000 from North Carolina. The First Alabama Cavalry, which was considered one of the toughest units in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army, took part in his “march” through Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864-65.

The decision to express one’s loyalty to the Union by joining the army was often a painful one to make from the lowliest private to some of the highest-ranking officers. While the story of Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission in the U.S. army, rather than betray his home of Virginia, is often told and re-told in tragic prose, others grappled with the same decisions and yet chose to remain loyal. The man who offered Lee command of the U.S. army in 1861 was another Virginian by the name of Winfield Scott. Scott, whose military career stretched back to the War of 1812—including a failed presidential bid in 1852—was the highest-ranking general at the beginning of the war. Scott’s decision was no less difficult than Lee’s and yet he remained loyal and although too old to take command in the field, he helped formulate military policy that ultimately proved successful in subduing the rebellion.

General George Henry Thomas, also from Virginia, became one of the most successful generals in the war and saved the Union army from being completely routed on September 19, 1863, earning him the nickname the “Rock of Chickamauga.” His loyalty to the nation cost him his family, who refused to speak with him ever again and even turned his picture against the wall. Very few monuments to the service of these men and others like them, who defied family, friends, and community for the sake of the nation, can be found in the former Confederate states. And yet the removal of some Confederate monuments has caused some to worry about erasing history.

The other significant Southern bloc that voiced their loyalty to the Union and commitment to crushing the rebellion was the region’s slave population. From the beginning of the war, and in the shadow of a Supreme Court that as recently as 1857 ruled that free and enslaved blacks could not be citizens of the United States, African Americans offered their services to the military. Beginning in 1862 along the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, former slaves rushed into the first all black regiments. By the end of the war roughly 150,000 former slaves fought and died to save this nation. They did so under the most harrowing conditions. Black soldiers were massacred on battlefields and even sent back into slavery at places like Fort Pillow in Tennessee and at the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia by Confederates, who refused to treat them as legitimate soldiers. As if that wasn’t enough, their own government refused to pay them what white soldiers earned. Only sustained protests that lasted more than a year and continued demonstrations of bravery on the battlefield led Congress to correct this injustice in the summer of 1864.

Southern Unionists, both black and white, may have celebrated Confederate defeat, but they continued to be persecuted owing to their wartime beliefs and actions by terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Life was especially difficult for former slaves, who fought for the Union and now hoped to exercise the right to vote, own land, or run for public office. Their sacrifice for the Union ended in the rise of Jim Crow state governments by the turn of the 20th century.

After the war, as white Southerners erected monuments to their Confederate dead they also erected monuments to their former slaves, only they recalled not brave men who fought to preserve the Union, but their loving former “servants” who remained loyal to master and their Lost Cause. The very act of monument erection helped to erase this history for much of the 20th century.

The removal of Confederate monuments need not result in the erasure of history. In fact, it may for the first time create the intellectual and physical space to commemorate and remember a new narrative of the past, one that corresponds more closely to the long and rich history of service and sacrifice to this nation that is recalled each year on Memorial Day.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2016 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life

 

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Dead confederates…Again

Most people don’t know this – but there is a confederate Soldier Memorial at Arlington Cemetery. It was installed in 1914 and dedicated by then President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was probably the most retrograde and racist President in American History.

The past practice of the sitting President sending a wreath to this Memorial each Memorial day, along with those to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers presents and interesting challenge for President Obama.

Freise on One Side of confederate Memorial

Freise on One Side of confederate Memorial

It was Inauguration Day, and in the judgment of one later historian, “the atmosphere in the nation’s capital bore ominous signs for Negroes.” Washington rang with happy Rebel Yells, while bands all over town played ‘Dixie.’ Indeed, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who swore in the newly elected Southern president, was himself a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, “an unidentified associate of the new Chief Executive warned that since the South ran the nation, Negroes should expect to be treated as a servile race.” Somebody had even sent the new president a possum, an act supposedly “consonant with Southern tradition.”…

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2009 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life

 

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