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New play on the origins of Memorial Day produced by Bedstuy Baptists

“Honorable Distinction” at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church

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Honorable Distinction

 

 

Bedstuy Baptists honoring veterans by finding hopeful note in history

American flags are taped onto every pew in Mount Pisgah Baptist Church. Even in the humid summer heat, they hang stiffly as though standing at attention. A play rehearsal is going on around them but they are not moved by the ricocheting of voices and the bustling of bodies across the large sanctuary. Then, the heavy wooden doors to the church are slowly pulled open as someone enters the front hall.

A slight breeze runs over the flags and the pews. Immediately, the sanctuary is filled with the flutter of little polyester salutes. Being escorted down the central walkway to the front is a man in wheelchair. Though he is sitting, his long legs evidence that he once stood tall, and his eyes still look above most men’s heads as he gazes around the room.

As the first audience members begin to trickle into their seats, the cast, also as though blown, disappear to the back rooms of the church for last-minute preparations before they take the stage. It is almost time for the play to start.

Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

 

This weekend on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, Mount Pisgah Baptist Church at 212 Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn invited veterans and civilians in New York City to observe Memorial Day by returning all the way back to the beginnings of the holiday. The church offers this history lesson in the form of Honorable Distinction, an original play written by playwright and congregation member Kenya A. Cagle. Michele Hawkins Jones is the director and Jamel Gaines, the choreographer. By exploring this history, the church hopes to encourage current veterans that their labors also will be remembered by future generations. Mount Pisgah also wants to teach their young people that current struggles will be solved just as previous struggles were.

“Healing is the hallmark word of our ministry, and healing means wholeness, and wholeness for us is a marriage between our hope and our history that is why we do what we do,” says executive pastor, Reverend Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood.

Johnny Ray Youngblood

Reverend Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

 

The play depicts the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first African-American units in the United States. In the heat of the Civil War, both born freemen and those who were emancipated from former slavery wanted to support the Union against the Confederate army.

After the war was ended, over 250 bodies, including African American soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts, were found dumped unceremoniously into a mass grave outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Outraged, African Americans dug up the bodies of these beloved heroes and prepared them in proper burials. Friends and families placed flowers and fencing around this new cemetery. On the day that they had decided to dedicate the plot to the Union’s lost soldiers, a parade of over 3,000 young African American children and the remaining officers of the 54th Massachusetts covered the grounds. Here, the first Memorial Day was celebrated. The next year, the day was made an official holiday.

Members of the church produced, wrote, and choreographed the play in one month’s time. As the play finishes, Youngblood takes the stage and asks veterans to give feedback.

Solomon Quick, 71, who served in a special force unit in the Korean war, describes the performance as direct and emotional, and he praises the “proficiency of Kenya Cagle and the actors and the actresses.” He is glad that “[the actors] painted a picture that was presentable, to make [being a veteran] socially acceptable. You don’t want to get into the degradation and the horrors of it, because then nobody wants to hear that part--take my word for this, nobody appreciates the warrior until the barbarians is at the gate.” He thinks that the public’s distaste for the horror of war exacerbates problems that veteran administrations face, because nobody wants to get involved to fix them.

Harold Hedgpath, 67, from the 9th infantry division of the United States Army, believes the educational aspect of the show raised awareness to the original purpose of Memorial Day. He says he will exit the church “elated” and “with honor,” assured that his efforts in the army will not be forgotten.

Another veteran, Ruben R. Pratts, 67, of the United States Marines, who had served in the Vietnam War, appreciated that the show honored fallen men from both the Confederate and Yankee sides of the Civil War. He hopes that the civilian population will remember, “‘hey, we exist, we live free, and these United States exist [because] we are responsible for maintaining the United States. Not congress, not the president, not the governor, no politician. The defending warriors of the nation.”

Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

 

One church member, Bob Henry, 83, believes that the story of the 54th Massachusetts needs to be told because it is “fading in the minds of many people.” However, he looks forward to seeing it made explicitly relevant to a younger generation.

Youngblood emphasizes that it’s important to hear feedback from the veterans who attend so that next year’s production can be improved and made more accurate. Indeed, many of the veterans are already looking forward to seeing what more the church can produce.

“I would look forward to every other time there is a Memorial Day, or maybe even this house of worship setting up sessions to make the people aware until Memorial Day,” suggests Quick. “Don’t just make it on Memorial Day. Maybe, once a month or once every two weeks. Bring attention to the people, to the part that we played in all this.”

 

Video by Pauline Dolle, story by Sadie Cruz. Additional coverage by Tony Carnes and Moné Skratt-Henry.

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2 Responses to “New play on the origins of Memorial Day produced by Bedstuy Baptists” Leave a reply ›

  • Thank you for sharing that, Professor Blight. I believe your 2011 article in the New York Times was a rich resource for the playwright Kenya Cagle as he did his research for this script.

  • But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

    Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

    The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

    After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

    The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

    The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

    After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

    The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

    Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished.

    Indeed, 51 years later, the president of the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry from a United Daughters of the Confederacy official in New Orleans asking if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite in 1865; the story had apparently migrated westward in community memory. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith, leader of the association, responded tersely, “I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.”

    Beckwith may or may not have known about the 1865 event; her own “official” story had become quite different and had no place for the former slaves’ march on their masters’ racecourse. In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream recognition.

    AS we mark the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, we might reflect on Frederick Douglass’s words in an 1878 Memorial Day speech in New York City, in which he unwittingly gave voice to the forgotten Charleston marchers.

    He said the war was not a struggle of mere “sectional character,” but a “war of ideas, a battle of principles.” It was “a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization ... and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield.” With or against Douglass, we still debate the “something” that the Civil War dead represent.

    The old racetrack is gone, but an oval roadway survives on the site in Hampton Park, named for Wade Hampton, former Confederate general and the governor of South Carolina after the end of Reconstruction. The old gravesite of the Martyrs of the Race Course is gone too; they were reinterred in the 1880s at a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C.

    But the event is no longer forgotten.

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