Monday, May 28, 2018
A fleeting moment of celebration
by Tom Sullivan
Hampton Park, Charleston, SC
The U.S. flag that went out first thing this morning has already come in out of the rain. Memorial Day parades in places across the Southeast will be soggy.
The Washington Post's Editorial Board remembers how the parade along the Champs-Elysees after the liberation of Paris in 1944 was merely a fleeting moment of celebration for troops who would die on the march east to Berlin:
In a democratic country, it takes a deep and widespread sense of obligation to wage that sort of struggle. People can be, and were, compelled to serve, but there are limits to what a decent government can do to enforce compliance with its laws — especially by those who are morally opposed to killing or even, as in one famous Supreme Court case, to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In the end, the vital component of a free people’s defense is a sense of obligation, set forth at the U.S. Military Academy but understood by all who serve: Duty. Honor. Country. These are not Twitter words. They are engraved in our national consciousness.
For others they have become shibboleths of tribal loyalty, words used to identify friend from foe among kinsmen.
I was already considering republishing an account of my visit to the site of what Yale historian David W. Blight considers the first Memorial Day parade. The Post notes it as well:
It came on May 1, 1865, less than a month after the surrender at Appomattox, when thousands of former slaves and other African Americans in Charleston, S.C., pooled their efforts to give proper burial to several hundred Union soldiers who had been held as prisoners of war at a racetrack and had died there under atrocious conditions. The field was covered with flowers for the occasion, and schoolchildren and women’s groups marched and sang patriotic songs, including “We’ll Rally Round the Flag” and, of course, the national anthem. It was a spectacular display of love of country, and of hope for the future.
We visited on New Year's Day 2016 after stopping by Mother Emanuel AME Church, site of the recent mass shooting, where slave revolt leader Denmark Vesey once preached.
“They were themselves the true patriots,” writes Mr. Blight. But, he adds, “Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished.”
I wrote then:
Sunday morning we happened to drive by The Citadel, removed from the business district and off the usual tourist track. I had never been in that quadrant of the city before, but remembered a recent blog post that explained how Memorial Day had its origins in Charleston in a spot just east of the military college. Of course, we went looking for it:
The fallen were later moved, most to a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C. The race track became a city park named after Confederate General (and later governor) Wade Hampton III. An historic marker commemorating this first Memorial Day was installed in just 2010. Wherever it was, we missed seeing it. Even reading a photo carefully (go do it now), one can easily miss that the majority of participants were former slaves. You have to know your history and read between the lines. At a time when news agencies cannot bring themselves to mention that the armed, Bundy insurrectionists in Oregon are white (or nearly all) or refer to them as anything more dangerous than "activists" or "occupiers," on this coast even a five year-old historical marker in a gentrifying, heavily black city tiptoes around the fact that the honorable actions it commemorates were performed by black, former slaves.
... 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.
Then again, newer, more prominent, and a surprise was the statue below, installed at Hampton Park just two years ago. Unlike the other marker, the statue's base provides a clear background to who Denmark Vesey was and why he has found a place in Hampton Park:
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Undercover Blue 5/28/2018 06:00:00 AM