Many of us couldn’t wait for this weekend. Stressed and overworked, we looked forward to relaxing with family and friends. So we got an extra day off. Now what? We can pause to reflect on what this day truly symbolizes. Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day, is a day to commemorate those who have died in our nation’s service. Standard history tells us that Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It is now celebrated on the last Monday in May, passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays.
Accordingly, our history tells us that the first known observance of Decoration Day was in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. African Americans founded Decoration Day at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers and labeled the Union soldiers buried there the Martyrs of the Race Course on May 1, 1865, three years before Gen. Logan’s proclamation. Not surprisingly, our story got omitted from the “standard” historical narrative.
To be sure, we can debate and discuss what this day used to signify and what its establishment truly means. But I know what it means to me in the here and now. As a wounded warrior spouse, as a child of an Air Force veteran and a grandchild of an Army veteran, I know that the men in my life stepped up and served their country during peace time and war time, when it was convenient but mostly when it was not. I am clear that this day means more to me than many. And I think that is unfortunate that being black and in the military, particularly during my grandfather’s time, is no easy feat.
Let’s consider the rich diversity of the military and veteran population. More female veterans are serving in combat roles. For the first time, the holistic needs of military family members (spouses, children, parents, siblings) are being tactically considered, along with the needs of our wounded warriors and their caregivers. These sub-populations have been more affected by past wars and the current conflicts than ever before in our nation’s history. Yet, racial and ethnic minorities and women are underrepresented among senior noncommissioned officers and other leadership roles. In many ways and for several reasons, racial disparities among service members mirror the civilian workforce and their families share this burden.
But there is hope, as organizations that use their platforms to support diversity push forward alongside churches and religious groups, schools, universities and community organizations. It is critical that we all get involved or at least, in between the bites of chicken and potato salad pause to recognize the players in the part of our history that often get omitted.