Decoration Day

26 May 2013

Nathaniel McNAIR (uncle of Arthur Leslie -- unknown location)

As I spent my day pondering the meaning of Memorial Day, and its relevance to genealogy, I was led to an account of how the day we now celebrate had it’s genesis in the African American community as a celebration of the end of the Civil War which resulted in the Emancipation of four million people from slavery. That commemoration has evolved to include all casualties of all wars from the Civil War forward.

In the course of my research, I found an account by Historian David Blight, associate professor of history at Connecticut College, who reports:

SoldiersAfrican Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

Read the entire article: http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/14684833-the-black-roots-of-memorial-day

My personal memories of war are limited to second hand tales of WWII shared by my mother, her brother who served and their contemporaries.

The benchmark war of my generation was in Vietnam. I remember well going to the train station almost every week with friends who had been drafted. Many of them never came back — or returned irrevocably damaged (physically and/or mentally) from the experience.

It is hard to believe that, during this time — when adored world boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to serve — I was a member of my high school ROTC. I achieved the rank of Major, but a military career? No way.

I shared Ali’s feelings when he said:

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?  No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.  This is the day when such evils must come to an end…. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.  I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.  So I’ll go to jail, so what?  We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

Contemplation of all this history inspired me to wonder how many people in my family tree served in the military. Having never tried to connect the dots before, I was surprised at how many I found.

In a world where more than 100 wars are currently in progress, I have so many thoughts about the subject — it’s horror and futility. Everyone who serves does so with honor, no matter how unjust the war. Putting one’s life on the line (for any reason) is a sacrifice of immeasurable proportion. My heart breaks for the families who endure the loss of loved ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice and for the soldiers who return and are treated so callously by the Veteran’s Administration and other agencies of government.

My great hope is that war will someday (soon) become obsolete — and I don’t mean just the act of sending people off to fight, but the act of waging war of any kind, for any reason.

With that in mind, here is my family honor roll:

Louis NICHOLSON (my mother’s father) said he spent “a few weeks” in service during WWI and  I remember the .38 revolver he proudly showed as a souvenir. I have never found a record of his service although I  have his draft registration card from 1917, when the corners were torn off to indicate race.

Walter Robert NICHOLSON (his brother) served with distinction in WWI on the battlefields of France. When he returned home, many American cities were in flames from race riots. He died a cruel death in a state mental hospital from the effects of gas poisoning in 1929.

Louis NICHOLSON, Jr. (my mother’s brother) served in the Navy during WWII. Because of his appearance, he was treated like a white man, which came with the dubious privilege of being entrusted with superior weaponry. He jokingly told us that he would have much preferred being treated as black so he could work in the kitchen instead of shooting people. I am able to relive his experience from the many letters he and my mother shared while he was in service.

Eugene Owen GAVIN (cousin) served in WWI in France and was awarded a Purple Heart. His service was ironic in that, some years before the war, his family had been driven off of their land by “night riders” in OK in obvious rebuke of their civil rights.

Eugene Victor GAVIN (cousin), a registered Communist, was a Merchant Marine and an early volunteer in the Spanish American War, where he served in the “mixed” Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Assigned to a Spanish formation, he was severely wounded and lost an eye.

His brother, Robert Owen GAVIN served in this same brigade as a medic. He disappeared in 1938 “in combat against the enemy.”

Robert LESLIE (my father’s brother) enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Ft. Huachuka AZ, famous as the headquarters of the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers). After a year, he was dismissed as “unable to adapt to service” for reasons I have yet to discover.

Ulysses Simpson LESLIE (my father’s uncle) This son of parents who were enslaved in AL served in WWI. I never met him in person and have no details.

Nathaniel McNAIR (cousin) served in WWI. I know absolutely nothing about him other than the photo of him in his uniform, which is at the head of this blog post.

Francine Evelyn LESLIE (my first cousin) was a WAVE. She fled her abusive father by enlisting in the Navy and never experienced combat. Her military service enabled her to be educated as a nurse, a career from which she recently retired.

I don’t have enough details to shout out Paul FARMER (US Army), Frederick WILLIAMSON (USAF) and Charles LITTLE (USN) — but their service is not forgotten.

And then, there are others I have a hard time “honoring” — the white men of the GAVIN family of Noxubee County, MS. More than 10 served in the Confederate Army and mostly survived. At least two of them (Gabriel and Robert Lewis) had black “families” back on the plantation and I will never comprehend how they lived with that hypocrisy.

Perhaps this egregious service can be tempered by knowing that my white grandmother’s grandfather Daniel WAYMOTH served on the Union side from Indiana. Severely wounded in an accident  unrelated to combat, he spent many painful years fighting for a pension that was posthumously awarded to his widow. His family disowned my grandmother when she married a black man in Chicago in 1926.

I will update my list again next year, but until then, think about this:

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