Memorial Days, Past and Present

According to this article by Dave Roos, the earliest Memorial Day commemoration took place May 1, 1865. Formerly enslaved people and white missionaries staged a parade around the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina, which during the war had been pressed into service as a prisoner-of-war camp for Union soldiers. After the mayor of Charleston surrendered on February 18, 1865 and Confederate troops left the city, newly-freed people exhumed over 260 Union soldiers from a mass grave behind the racetrack’s grandstand and gave them proper burials in a new cemetery. Exhuming and properly burying so many bodies took two weeks.

Like too many stories of the African-American experience of this country, it could have remained in the realm of solely oral tradition (if not lost entirely). But a Union veteran’s written remembrance and the persistence searching of historian David Blight (among others) led to a news account of the event in The New York Tribune (founded by Horace Greeley) and another in the Charleston Courier, brought this origin story of Memorial Day into the light.

Memorial Day 2023, the remembrances of American military veterans who have died will include those killed in action as part of Ukraine’s foreign legion.  Malcolm Nance, a U.S. Navy veteran intelligence officer and commentator for MSNBC is perhaps the highest-profile of these volunteers, having joined the legion after his contract with MSNBC expired. He (and others) have done this as private citizens, despite repeated warnings not to do so from the Biden administration. In explaining his reasons for volunteering, Nance referenced the story of Eugene Bullard, one of a small handful of black pilots during World War I, and the only one who fought on behalf of France.

I’m especially struck by the story of Cooper T. Andrews, a retired Marine Corps sergeant who reported died last month at age 26 in a mortar attack while helping to evacuate people from Bahkmut, Ukraine (which recently fell to the mercenaries of Wagner Group). Andrews grew up around Cleveland, Ohio and according to his mother his passion for social justice was fueled at least in part by Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of police in 2014. Also according to his mother, his experiences with his Ukrainian unit were better than those during his service in the Marine Corps, where he experienced racism from his fellow Marines. This in particular reminded me of what I’ve read in history about the Harlem Hellfighters, who fought under French command during World War I. As of this writing, Willow Andrews (the mother of Cooper) is still fighting to have her son’s remains returned to the U.S. for burial, having struggled to do so via the U.S. State Department.

It saddens me that even today it can still be the case sometimes that an African-American finds more kinship and common ground abroad with the fighting men of those countries than in the country of their birth and citizenship. 

My First Juneteenth

Today marks the date in 1865 when General Gordon Granger read General Order 3 to the people of Galveston Bay, Texas, informing the enslaved there and in all of Texas of freedom that had been rightfully theirs two years earlier.  That was essentially the full extent of my understanding of Juneteenth until recently, so I’ve taken the additional time off my employer gave us today to dig a bit deeper.  Juneteenth.comthe Wikipedia entry about Juneteenth, and this explainer by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have been my starting points.  I shared these links with my direct reports as well as my co-workers before our 2PM close today, and was heartened by how generously they were received.

In today’s national discussions of and writing about Juneteenth, the role of Texas and black Texans doesn’t get nearly the prominence it should.  Even as someone who has read The Warmth of Other Suns, and the way that aspects of black southern culture migrated north and west out of the South along with its people, it didn’t occur to me that holidays would or could migrate too.  Once I looked at the map of dates when different states granted it official recognition however, it made sense that Minnesota and Florida were among the first states outside of Texas to grant that recognition before the year 2000.  In reading a story like this one, it reinforces yet again that we in this country are fundamentally miseducated about its history when it comes to the Civil War, Reconstruction, its failure, and the consequences of that failure.

Even a widely-acclaimed documentary like Ken Burns’ The Civil War–which my high school classmates and I watched parts of in history class on VHS after each episode aired–can’t convey just how determined some in this country were to preserve the institution of slavery.  Only in reading about Juneteenth did I learn of plantation owners and other slaveholders migrating to Texas and bringing those they enslaved along with them to escape the fighting (and leveraging their distance from Union troops to extract years of additional labor from them).  This thread by Aderson B. Francois, professor of law at Georgetown University, tells a story I definitely did not know about concerted efforts to make it unconstitutional to abolish slavery.  Not only was the Corwin Amendment passed by both houses of Congress by the necessary margin to proceed to ratification, not only did Abraham Lincoln support it, but my home state was among five that ratified it (and only rescinded that ratification in 2014).  Thanks to a friend I met back in grad school, I learned that some of the defeated Confederates attempted to preserve the Confederacy in Brazil.

Spending the time to learn more about Juneteenth has unearthed quite a few things done in previous years to focus attention on it, and the story of black people in this country more generally.  This interview with Isabel Wilkerson from 2017 leads off with audio from the 1940s housed at the Library of Congress from a formerly-enslaved woman old enough to remember the original Juneteenth, and reflects upon the death of Philando Castile at the hands of police in the previous year.  This piece on the National Museum of African American History and Culture website talks about the legacy of Juneteenth.  A brief story from The History Channel originally published in 2015 talks about the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth.  I’m not sure how many other holidays have their own flag, but Juneteenth does and has for over 20 years.

Another interesting thing Juneteenth has done in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is spark good faith questions from white friends and co-workers about aspects of black history in the United States.  While my heritage makes my connection to the term “black” more complicated, I refer friends to documentaries like 13th, and to the scholarship of Dr. William Darity to learn more about reparations.

In addition to spending at least a part of today learning more, I donated to two non-profits and encouraged friends to do so as well.  The Innocence Project works to free those wrongly convicted of crimes.  The Equal Justice Initiative operates The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which seek to educate about the history of enslavement, lynching, and mass incarceration of black Americans in the United States.  Perhaps this Juneteenth will be the beginning of an annual tradition of learning and contributing to the cause of justice.