Pay homage to soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice during two events organized by Soldiers Memorial Military Museum this May. The Museum has partnered with Greenwood Cemetery for Return to Honor, a day of service at the cemetery on May 18, from noon to 4 p.m. A Memorial Day Flag and Remembrance Ceremony will take place from 10 a.m. to noon on Monday, May 27, at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum downtown.

One of the earliest commemorations of the Memorial Day holiday was held after the Civil War, when emancipated African-Americans consecrated new graves for 250 Union soldiers who died in a prison camp in Charleston, South Carolina.

“In 1865, the South was in ruin, and the nation was being reborn,” says Marvin Greer, education and visitor experience lead at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum. “While not directly associated with the modern Memorial Day, thousands of members of the African American community in Charleston gathered to pay honor to the Union dead that fought to preserve the Union and to defeat the slave powers. This was the first large-scale celebration and remembrance of soldiers who gave their lives for the country.”

While most white Unionist viewed the war initially as a war to preserve the Union, it was the black community — North and South — who kept up the steady drumbeat of freedom and citizenship, Greer says.

“They knew this war would redefine America and what it meant to be American,” he explains. “Ten thousand men, women and children of Charleston’s black community honored not just black but white soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom. This Memorial Day remains an important symbol of the reimagining of American society, from a nation that began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal,’ except for certain classes, to a country where minorities can hold public office and even ascend to the presidency.”

“If not for the victory over slavery, America would have looked much different,” he continues. “In an era of inequality, it was black Americans who stood by the flag, the constitution and the founding ideals of America even when the country did not stand by them.”

The modern Memorial Day is credited to former Union General John A. Logan, who established Decoration Day in 1868 to clean and decorate the graves of fallen Union soldiers, Greer says.

“The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the first large veterans’ organization, traditionally spearheaded these public ceremonies,” he says. “It was not until 1966 when President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized an official national holiday.”

Greer expressed the importance of taking the time to pause and remember those who sacrificed for us both on and off the battlefield.

“This partnership with Greenwood Cemetery helps remember an event of over 150 years ago by cleaning the graves of those fallen service people,” he says. “Greenwood is the perfect place to partner with. It’s the home to members of the Armed Forces and civilians who were prominent activist in helping make America a more perfect Union.”

Celebrating Memorial Day is imperative, even for those who may not feel its relevant to their lives.

“We do not always know who our ancestors are, especially in the black community,” Greer says. “The word ‘sankofa’ is used in the Twi language of Ghana. It means ‘go back and get it.’ You must go and get your history in order to progress forward in life. This holiday allows everyone in the community to go back and remember those who sacrificed for our freedoms today.”

“Visiting Soldiers Memorial [Military Museum] will also help keep the memories of those of the past alive,” he continues. “Individuals may recognize familiar names and might even find a long-lost relative.” 

If you would like to participate in the Return to Honor day of service at Greenwood Cemetery, meet at the cemetery entrance at 6571 St. Louis Ave. Hillsdale, MO, 63121 at noon on Saturday, May 18. Lunch and water will be provided. Volunteers will be mowing grass, removing brush, and doing other yard work, please dress appropriately. Some brooms, trimmers, etc., will be provided, but participants are encouraged to bring their own tools if they have them. In case of inclement weather, the event will be postponed.

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