Thursday, November 11, 2010
What began as a day to commemorate the end of the Great War, which we know as World War I, became in time a day to remember our veterans here in the U.S. On this day, in cities and hamlets across the country, we will turn out to honor the living, from the newly returned vets of Iraq and Afghanistan to the last of the Greatest Generation. And we will visit cemeteries and plant flags by graves of those veterans no longer with us. I think now of Vance and Cecil and Babe and Boots, just a few of the names from my childhood of veterans returned from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. But I also think of names you likely do not know, names like Powhatan Beatty and Addison White.
These are veterans of an older war, a war that began as a constitutional crisis and a conflict between states, became a bloody civil war, and in the end was undeniably a war of liberation. In this, the greatest crisis in American history, men like Beatty and White volunteered even before they were wanted. Powhatan Beatty, a former slave in Virginia who gained his freedom and moved to Cincinnati, served in the 5th USCT (originally the 127th Ohio), and for his heroics at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm (near Richmond, VA), he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Addison White, a fugitive slave from Kentucky who escaped to Mechanicsburg, Ohio, in the mid-1850s, served with the famous 54th Massachusetts, immortalized in the Boston monument to its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw (pictured above), and depicted in the movie "Glory." He survived the war and returned to sleepy little Mechanicsburg to live out his days. He is buried there in Maple Grove Cemetery. For more about him click here.
Approximately 180,000 men like Beatty and White served the Union in the American Civil War. Many of them became the objects of hate and rage at war's end, and some of them were shot down, lynched, abused, and otherwise maltreated by mobs of white men who could not cope with the idea that a person of color was their equal, or perhaps their better. In short, they became victims of terrorism, and the terrorists were Americans...with white skin...sometimes wearing white robes...my ancestors. When I'm not on Farmville or writing poetry or taking pictures for The Bug, this is what I write about. Not a day goes by that I don't think about men like Beatty and White, their families, their descendants (I have met some of Addison White's descendants). I think about what they suffered before, during, and after the war, even though all they were asking for was freedom and equality. I think about them, and I am sometimes overwhelmed with shame for what my ancestors did to black veterans, their families, and their communities
More often, though, I am proud of a country that could respond, that could ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Yes, it took another one hundred years, and the deaths of more Americans, including WWII veteran Medgar Evers, for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to make real the promises in those amendments. Still, that does not diminish the fact that a great generation of Americans, both those who fought for their own freedom and the freedom of a whole people, and those who fought in Congress and in the states to get these amendments ratified, got it done in the first place. Women, minorities, indeed all of us, enjoy civil rights today that are protected, not only by our valiant men and women in uniform, but also by the 14th Amendment and all the legislation built on its solid foundation. All of that was made possible by the brave African-American soldiers who led that "gallant rush" to freedom in the midst of the American Civil War, and who demanded equality after the war was over. Today, and every day, I honor their memory, and I thank them for service above and beyond the call of duty, and for the cause of freedom and equality for which some of them "gave the last full measure of devotion."