On the day when we honor American soldiers killed in battle, the origin of Memorial Day may not seem important to you. However, for many Black Americans it is important. It helps frame how many died defending a country that enslaved and oppressed their people.
Most believe Memorial Day began in 1868 when General John A. Logan declared a national holiday. But historian David Blight writes that our “ritual of remembrance and consecration” began in 1865 when 10,000 Black citizens marched to mourn the reburial of those tossed into a mass grave, many of them Black soldiers. The procession declared that the war “had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.”
Blight contends we have marginalized Black soldiers. They fought heroically, but whites dominate our narratives. For example, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is featured front and center in Boston’s impressive public Civil War memorial by Saint-Gaudens. While Shaw is worthy of accolades, so too are the Black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry massacred at Ft. Wagner in South Carolina. As the film Glory shows, Black troops were routinely thrown into dangerous battles.
Southerners, Blight argues, suppressed the true origins of Memorial Day so it would be portrayed as a holiday of reconciliation honoring northern and southern whites. This matters to Denise Velez, a descendant of Black Union soldiers, and – in the case of her great-grandmother – a Union nurse.
Velez hopes the deconstruction of Confederate monuments will make room for remembering Black soldiers. The list of Confederate memorials, she explains, is “too damn long.”
Leroy Atwater, a volunteer at a cemetery near his home, works with veterans to honor fallen soldiers. Atwater read about the “pomp and pageantry” honoring a possible confederate spy, while Black soldiers were forgotten and their patriotism erased by white supremacy.
Black people have always had to work harder to prove their patriotism. They served in every war, including WWI when 380,000 enlisted. They heeded the call of W.E.B. Du Bois urging them to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens…fighting for democracy.” More than a million fought for democracy in WWII. 3075 Black troops died in Korea and 7243 in Vietnam. They are still dying today. This Memorial Day we should remember those who were too easily forgotten.
- Lesson #92: Too often portrayals of the Civil War minimize the heroism of Black soldiers.
- Lesson #93: The reburial and consecration of soldiers by Black Americans in 1865 may be the true origin of Memorial Day
- Lesson #94: The “white savior complex” is yet to be rooted out of our military history.
- Lesson #95: Black troops were routinely thrown into the most dangerous situations.
- Lesson #96: Black people have always had to work harder to prove their patriotism.
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