Memorial Day: Digging Up Bodies and Buried History

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Memorial Day, 2015

 It might surprise Americans that Memorial Day was likely started by emancipated enslaved peopleIt was May 1865, and they were grateful for soldiers who’d sacrificed their lives.

Freed Slaves rebury Union soldiers who had been in a mass Confederate grave.

Freed Slaves rebury Union soldiers who had been in a mass Confederate grave.

The newly free citizens spent two weeks carefully digging up the bodies of 257 Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave at a Confederate prison camp in Charleston South Carolina, and giving them a proper reburial. Then, led by 2,800 Black children, 10,000 joined in a parade-like march filled with singing to honor and respect the fallen soldiers in an event they, at the time, called Decoration Day.

I think this Memorial Day would be a very good time for us to reflect and carry on with what they started.

 I am not suggesting we dig up bodies. I am suggesting we dig up buried facts of our Country’s history honoring them this weekend, too, as we attend picnics and parades.

This year, I will be thinking of my great grandfather Samuel Bauer who was in Minnesota’s First Volunteer Infantry. They mustered for three years (most regimens mustered for three months) for the Union Army, suffering deep casualties during critical battles, including Bull Run and Gettysburg.

In fact, the Gettysburg Address was given by Lincoln honoring my great grandfather’s fallen comrades, when they were reburied and consecrated. Much like the freedmen later did for other soldiers.

The speech was also, of course, famous for being Lincoln’s declaration that the Civil War was fought to secure the rights of freedom for Africans who were forcibly enslaved by so many Americans. When he memorably started by harkening back to the words of the Country’s founding:

Union soldiers from the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry

Union soldiers from the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry

 “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,  conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln went on, issuing a call to all there to carry on in memory of the fallen soldiers’ efforts. He knew they were far from enough to forever stop the deep injustices of slavery.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Continuing, he again connected our country’s history to its future by quoting from the preamble to the US Constitution. ‘Of the people, by the people.’  He was appealing not only to government bureaucrats and other history-writers. But on all citizens to engage in the ongoing labors of upholding America’s foundational ideals for justice and equality.

Lincoln wasn’t only speaking to the people of those times when he said ‘that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.’ The President was, in effect, framing up the work of many generations following the Civil War. Which was only the beginning of a much bigger task for all citizens of the nation, to continue.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

What this means might not have occurred to some of us contemporary Americans. This Memorial Day leaves us with more work to be done. To remember not only the soldiers who fought, but also to the enslaved who’s lives were emancipated by law, by their involuntary and violent sacrifice. If not yet by the communities and culture all had to find a way to share.

Their Black descendants walk among us as our fellow citizens. As does the ghost of brutal enslavers, whose white descendants  —  like so many others of us  —  have still yet to fully understand the imperatives our history set up for us all. We can see how it’s been forgotten or overlooked, or worse: in rampant poverty, poor education, unjust law enforcement of Black people, to this day.

Beginning this Memorial Day we all must emancipate our personal, living humanity and do our part to continue building on the work Lincoln memorialized, with gratitude. Not only celebrating, but also engaging in the work that he and so many soldiers -– like my great-grandfather -– began. Only for us, it needn’t be bloody at all. But as we memorialize our lost soldiers, we must too remember that they were first honored by the profound acts of our country’s Black descendants. We must ask ourselves would we have been so noble? And we must follow their lead in much more earnest efforts to honor them — their history that we’ve so long buried.

One easy, but powerful way is offered by the Video Racial Healing effort, which invites White Americans to speak truth to the reverberating issues of their privilege and still-prevailing White supremacy. You can see many of their self-made videos HERE along with others’ written thoughts on the topic HERE. As well as tips on how to prepare for discussing racial issues. And for those who are ready to declare their understanding of Lincoln’s still needed reminder, how to share your own written or video taped voice for racial healing.

To honor Abraham Lincoln’s instructions for all We the People. By joining together in union and contributing to the ongoing need for justice, until all citizens of all colors in our country are equally respected.

Andrea Morisette Grazzini is founder of DynamicShift and founder and CEO of WetheP, Inc. WetheP created and hosts the Video Racial Healing website. 

For more watch this sermon by Rev David Cobb, pastor of Spirit of Joy Church in Lakeville, Minnesota, HERE.

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