Today’s Memorial Day celebration honoring America’s fallen military servicemen and women will include a most unique parade to the National Cemetery in my hometown of Natchez, Miss., involving mostly African Americans and dating back to the forming of one of the first regiments of black Civil War soldiers–the United States Colored Troops(USCT) in July 1863.
Growing up in Natchez in the ’50s and ’60s, I looked forward to the “30th of May” celebrations, blissfully unaware of its historical significance. The parade kicked off early across the Mississippi River Bridge from Natchez in Vidalia, La., through the downtown district. Flags waving, ex-servicemen, church society women in their white uniforms, and regular citizens swelled the ranks as the marchers streamed into the National Cemetery. Vendors with food stands lined the street, and inside the grounds, the marchers placed flowers and flags on the headstones under the sound of a brass band and military gun salute.
Why it seemed like the “Negro military cemetery,” wasn’t much pondered as I recall, everything else being legally segregated at the time.
But what might have seemed like an odd wave of patriotic fervor by black Mississippians during the height of Jim Crow, actually dated back to a Civil War battle involving the Union Army’s 2nd Mississippi Heavy Artillery, African Descent and 1500 Confederates in February 1864. To digest that notion, consider that 50 years before the Civil War, Natchez, oldest settlement on the Mississippi, had been the site of Forks of the Road, the second largest domestic slave trading center in America.
Two years after the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C. launched the War between the States, Congress enacted a law that created the formation of the United States Colored Troops(USCT) on May 22, 1863. Soon after the Union Army began its occupation of Natchez in July 1863, thousands of newly emancipated black men flocked to the former slave market site to enlist. Union forces in Natchez grew to 5,000, over 3,000 of them black men, according to records.
In his 2001 book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” Yale historian David Blight traces the first events of what became known as “Decoration Day,” and later Memorial Day to May 1865 after the first Union troops, including the Twenty First Colored Infantry, entered Charleston, S.C. At a planter’s race track that had been converted into an outdoor prison for Union soldiers in the war’s last year, a group of black workmen descended on what had been an impromptu mass burial ground for hundreds of Union dead, re-buried them properly, and built a high fence around the compound with the inscription “Martys of the Race Course,” Blight recounts. Thousands of black schoolchildren, black women carrying baskets of flowers and wreaths, and regiments of black and white Union soldiers joined in a march to the former slaveholder’s race course on the first “Decoration Day.”
When the Grand Army of the Republic(GAR), a fraternal organization comprised of Civil War Union veterans, white and black, began the national tradition of Decoration Day in 1868, Natchez’s war casualties, nearly all black, were interred on the site that is now the Natchez National Cemetery.
Most Southern states would not officially recognize Decoration Day because it had been established to honor those who had served the Union during the war, says Darrell White, director of the Natchez NAPAC Museum for African American History and Culture. But in Natchez,where the literal transformation of black people from slavery to freedom and citizenship was stark, the pilgrimage to the National Cemetery became a lasting tradition.
According to historical records compiled by White, of the initial 3,075 known and unknown Civil War Union soldiers interred in Natchez, 2,484 were black. They include Wilson Brown, a Civil War Medal of War Recipient. It was not until after the Korean War that survivors of white veterans began to bury their fallen soldiers in what had begun as the “black military cemetery,” says White.
In the aftermath of the war, the nation’s need for reconciliation and reconstruction coupled with the lingering vision of white supremacy, “delivered the country a segregated memory of its Civil War on Southern terms,” Blight writes. In the sesquicentennial of the war, perhaps that distortion can finally change.
“Decoration Day” parade images courtesy of NAPAC Museum. USCT Re-enactors at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.