The Black impact on Memorial Day also always needs to be remembered.
This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day to honor the men and women of the United States armed forces who made, and continue to make, the ultimate sacrifice, fighting for, and protecting, the nation they love.
The very first Memorial Day was on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, S.C. when formerly enslaved Africans held a ceremony to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp.
They spent the next two weeks digging up each body and giving them a proper burial to honor them for fighting and dying for their freedom. The gracious African-Americans then held a parade of 10,000, led by a procession of nearly 3,000 black children dancing, singing and marching in celebration.
Yet despite its origins, the African-American impact on the shaping of Memorial Day is mostly forgotten and ignored by the mainstream.
Indeed, it is as easy for a contrarian to forget the black origins of Memorial Day as it is for them to forget the massive contributions that African-Americans have made to the military successes of the nation dating back to before the American Revolution.
Despite edicts from historic figures like George Washington, who stated that the Continental Army would not have black soldiers, warriors of African descent have fought in every war that America has engaged in over its entire span.
“Neither negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men” decreed General Washington on November 12th, 1775, could enlist in the Continental Army, which is why close to 20,000 slaves fought on the side of the British.
Black Fighters, Black Protectors
As children, the code names of some of those vaunted soldiers sounded so powerful they should have been immortalized in comic books. The Harlem Hellfighters, the Tuskegee Airmen and others with call signs lost to history are often mentioned when the need to ferment national pride among African-Americans becomes apparent, such as on Veterans’ Day, the 4th of July and Memorial Day.
For most of American history, fighting units were segregated, up until the Executive Order 9981 was passed by President Roosevelt, which stated:
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.
Heck, and that may not have occurred unless First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had not convinced her husband to allow black warriors to fight on the front lines and for more women of all colors to participate in the war effort.
She also supported the Tuskegee Airmen becoming the first black fighter squadron.
However, whenever a prominent member of the mainstream champions equity for African-Americans, the nation becomes less and less enthusiastic about the measures as time goes on.
Doubly so once the primary sponsor of said overtures dies, as was the case with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1962.
It is beyond a shame that the actions of those who were in the muddy and bloody trenches of the Western Front during World War I, or in the sweltering jungles of the South Pacific during World War II or who traversed a mountain range on foot to hunt Taliban in Afghanistan, don’t act as automatic validation for their rights.
The inherent white supremacist undertones that have historically permeated the American experiment have bled through time to entangle even the greatest and most sincere attempts at societal equity in favor of African-American people.
Thus, no matter how herculean the feat, no matter how dedicated the soldier, no matter how mentally and emotional traumatized her or she becomes after killing in the name of the flag, the mainstream consensus is persistently one of apathy.
It is seen by some as a privilege for the black man and woman to die in defense of Old Glory, while Old Glory generally doesn’t give a damn about them.
Meanwhile, observable phenomenon such as the lynching of black soldiers following both World War I and World War II, as well as the modern data that shows black soldiers are far more likely to face court martial and dishonorably discharged than their white counterparts, are indicative of the constant fight for acceptance than every African-American serviceman in the past and present has had to undertake.
So as you watch the parades today or light up the family BBQs, take a moment to remember and acknowledge the sometimes forgotten individuals from the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, the “Bloods” from the Vietnam War and the other Black men and women of the military, both past and present.
And Happy Memorial Day to those who fought America’s enemies abroad only to realize the battle had only just begun at home.