African American History Culture : Ithaca, NY Memorial pays honor to 26 African-American Civil War vets

dustyelbow

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Oct 25, 2005
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Article published May 31, 2006
Ithaca Memorial pays honor to 26 African-American Civil War vets

By M.D. Morris
Special to The Journal
The Congress, in its ever-changing wisdom, by its National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90-363), ordained the last Monday in May each year as Memorial Day, to ensure a three-day weekend for Americans. And that happy holiday rapidly became a celebration of the threshold of summer.

Now, in the quiet after both the official holiday and the traditional day of remembrance, May 30, have passed, it's clear that we've lost track of the real meaning for Memorial Day: “Where are you going over Memorial Day?” has outdated “Whom are you remembering Memorial Day?”

General John A. Logan, then National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, through his General Order 11 (5 May, 1868) called for a Decoration Day — first observed May 30, 1868 — to put flags and flowers on the graves of Civil War veterans.

New York was the first state to acknowledge it as a holiday. In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized Waterloo, N.Y., as the actual first place, although many others claim that distinction.

Here in Ithaca, we have a unique Memorial Day marker. At St. James African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 116 Cleveland Ave., beside “old glory” stands a black, African gemite marble table with white-carved messages dedicated to the 26 Ithacan soldiers of the 26th Regiment.

By 1861, Ithaca had a small, thriving black community. Ithaca was a busy station on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves traveling from the South to freedom in Canada. Both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were closely involved in it, here at St. James. Douglass said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S. ... there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

Twenty-six young Ithaca black men enlisted and were sent to Rikers Island, where they were incorporated into the 26th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops.

Active on Johns and James Island, Honey Hill, Beaufort, S.C., and a number of other sites, the unit was mustered out at Brownsville, Texas, in August 1865 to return home to Ithaca. Except for Daniel Johnson and Edward Sorrell, 24 of the original 26 men came back home to St. James in Ithaca.

The cruel irony of that chapter is that 180,000 young African-American men — 10 percent of the Union Army — freely volunteered “to fight for ... liberty.” They got the muskets and the bullets Frederick Douglass required, but not the “brass letters, U.S.,” and the “eagle on his button.” They were the “U.S. Colored Troops,” apart from the regular white, U.S. Army. For about a year, between 1863 and 1864, USCT were paid less than white soldiers, until all troops pressured the Congress to reinstate the equal pay policy. Twenty one African-American soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their Civil War heroism, but the U.S. Armed Forces continued the oxymoronic policy of segregation. President Harry S. Truman integrated all the U.S. Armed Forces, albeit 180 years late.

St. James African Methodist Episcopal Zionist Church was begun in 1803 by Peter Webb and friends at the home of the Reverend Henry Johnson; then officially chartered in 1833.

Now Ithaca's oldest surviving original church building, it was erected in 1836 at its present site on Cleveland Avenue, then called Wheat Street. It quickly became the cultural, political and spiritual heart of the Ithaca black community; in 1841 it further served as a school for its children.

Visit the church's monument to renew personally the meaning of the occasion: to remember.

On Jan. 19, 1999, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, R-Hawaii, introduced a bill (5189) proposing to restore the traditional Memorial Day observance to May 30 exclusively. On April, 19, 1999 Representative James A. Gibbons, R-Nev., floated a similar bill in the House (HR1474). Both bills have been stalled in committees.

Growing up in New York City, I was steeped in Memorial Day from about my sixth year. Annually, my marvelous father would take me — in the early days, on his shoulders — to see the great parade up Riverside Drive to the huge marble Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 89th Street, where it would disband after a brief ceremony, sometimes officiated by the mayor.

I remember, I had the grand thrill of seeing live, the last three; then two; then one Civil War veteran riding by, proudly, in an open limousine. And then there were none.
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Noty getting paid for freedom and fighting for FREE. Who would have known in theses DAYS and TIME.
 

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