On Memorial Day, Reflecting on African-American History – The National Trust for Historic Preservation

First Memorial Day plaque Charleston SC Copyright Nadia Orton 2015
Plaque honoring the first Memorial Day in the United States. Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, September 6, 2015

Every May, the nation marks Memorial Day, the longstanding tradition we use to recognize fallen veterans. The holiday has its origins in “Decoration Day,” originally held in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865, when thousands of former slaves, Union soldiers, and missionaries honored Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison and were subsequently buried in a makeshift mass grave.

Historian David Blight recounts that after the soldiers’ proper burials, a massive parade followed. Participants decorated the graves with flowers, and clergy delivered speeches to commemorate the fallen.

My personal introduction to Decoration Day began with oral histories provided by my family’s elders. In rural Tidewater, Virginia, they told stories of Decoration Day commemorations stretching back to the 1880s. Parades began in African-American communities and ended at local black cemeteries. Families and friends honored their ancestors through song and praise, while their graves were cleaned and re-decorated.

They had good reason to pay homage: Many veterans had returned from the front lines of war to become leaders in their communities, forming masonic lodges, burial societies, schools, churches, and cemeteries. These institutions formed the foundations of post-Civil War African-American communities, giving their communities potential for the very type growth and development African-Americans had been denied in slavery. READ MORE…

Memorials to United States Colored Troops, Pt. 6 – Richmond, Virginia

Memorials to United States Colored Troops

A photo-essay series dedicated to the United States Colored Troops, and how they were remembered in contemporary news media

Pt. 6

Richmond, Virginia

East End Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond National Cemetery

William I. Johnson, Sr. – East End Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. Photo, New Journal and Guide, 1938

William I. Johnson, Sr.

W. I. Johnson, Sr., Pioneer, Buried With Honors Here – Funeral services for W. I. Johnson, Sr., pioneer citizen of Richmond, a former slave who became a prominent member of one of Richmond’s most highly respected families, were held here Wednesday of this week in First African Baptist Church, with Dr. W. T. Johnson, pastor in charge. Interment was in Evergreen Cemetery.

Mr. Johnson, a reputedly self-made man, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, February 14, 1840, and had attained the ripe age of 97, when he folded his arms in that sleep from which none ever wakes to weep.

Was pioneer Contractor

Mr. Johnson was one of the pioneers in the business world, having entered the contracting business during the dark and stormy days of reconstruction remaining active therein until a few years ago when he retired from active service because of injuries suffered in an accident.

Born and reared in slavery, Mr. Johnson saw his first experience on the battlefield as a body servant to his then “master.” Later, however, being a man of courage and initiative, he managed from the Confederate side to the Federal side when he escaped to a Yankee camp where he later served in the quartermaster corps of the Federal army. He took part in the bloody battles around Petersburg, Fort Harrison, Seven Pines, Danville and the famous battle of Manassas and was mustered out of the Federal service in Washington, in October, 1865.

Mr. Johnson has been an active member of the First African Baptist Church for 67 years; the Samaritans 65 years; Odd Fellows, 58 years; Masons, 58 years; Saint Lukes, 63 years and the National Ideals for sixteen years.

Buried With Masonic Rites

Full Mason honors were accorded this distinguished citizen as his funeral was conducted from First Baptist Church Wednesday at 2 p.m.

Mr. Johnson is survived by four daughters, Mrs. Ella Carrington, Mrs. Mamie Coleman, Mrs. Lavinia A. Banks, Mrs. Alice Johnson, and one son, W. I. Johnson, Jr. He is also survived by fourteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. — The Richmond Planet

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