Claiming History: Memorial Day

Officers of 4th U.S. Colored Infantry at Fort Slocum

Officers of 4th U.S. Colored Infantry at Fort Slocum
(Source: United States Library of Congress)

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

Three years earlier on May, 1, 1865, former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina decided to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang, and celebrated.

In the case of Memorial Day we have a real question. In 1865, or any time during that century, would the United States of America give credit to Black people for creating anything positive? I think we all know the answer to that question.

People may say it doesn’t matter who created the holiday as long as we celebrate it. Color blindness always comes into effect when Black people are involved. People tend to say, “It doesn’t matter what color they are” when the person is Black. Throughout history we have seen the cloud of disbelief that shrouds everything that was invented, created, or developed by Black people—from the great pyramids to the Black wall streets.

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney issued what is widely regarded as the worst Supreme Court opinion ever. He noted that the question before the Court was whether African Americans were citizens of the United States and thus able to file suit in federal court. His analysis of that issue is couched in abjectly racist language:

“[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.”

History is important as the great Dr. John Henrik Clarke notes:

“History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.”

And Dr. Runoko Rashidi tells us how invaluable history is to our identity and of sense of self-worth:
“What you do for yourself depends on what you think of yourself. And what you think of yourself depends on what you know of yourself. And what you know of yourself depends on what you have been told. Never allow anybody to tell you that history and culture is not important. Never let anybody say ‘that happened a long time ago, get over it.’ Make your history sacred.”

To know your history is to know yourself. Without your history you are like a tree without roots. Do you know your roots?

Print Friendly