Kemter was attempting to bring attention to an early Memorial Day tribute on May 1, 1865, for Black soldiers of the Civil War in Charleston, South Carolina. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Blight wrote in The New York Times in 2011: “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.” Blight described at least 257 Union captives kept in such miserable conditions that they died of disease before they were “hastily burned in a mass grave behind the grandstand” of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club.
“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,” Blight wrote. “They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.’” It’s a history few are taught in school, with many considering the first Memorial Day observance to be on May 5, 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic established Decoration Day to decorate the graves of those killed at war.
But Kemter tried to give credit where it was long overdue. “It was a Charleston Washington Race Course and Jockey Club today known as Hampton Park,” the veteran said. “The ceremony is believed to have included a parade of as many as 10,000 people, including 3,000 African American schoolchildren singing the Union marching song ‘John Brown’s Body,’” Kemter added. “They were carrying armfuls of flowers and went to decorate at the graves. Interesting, that there would be a tie back to Hudson with that song, John Brown.”
Then, Kemter’s voice became less audible. Suchan, president of the Hudson American Legion Auxiliary, told the Akron Beacon Journal either she or Garrison turned down the audio because Kemter’s discussion of Black history “was not relevant to our program for the day,” with the “theme of the day” being “honoring Hudson veterans.” She also admitted in the newspaper that: “We asked him to modify his speech, and he chose not to do that.”
Kemter told the Akron Beacon Journal he finds it interesting that the American Legion would “censor” his speech and deny his First Amendment right to the freedom of speech. “This is not the same country I fought for,” he said.
The Ohio American Legion said in its news release: “We are deeply saddened by this and stand in unity and solidarity with the black community and all peoples of race, color, religion, sex, and gender, so that those who are exclusive of such persons will know that this behavior is not acceptable in The American Legion, in our homes, our hearts, our communities, in private, public, or anywhere. We will continue to educate the value of diversity. Being different amongst each other is what makes us better – together.”
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