What we memorialize, and how, profoundly shapes our world.

You wouldn’t know there was a vet in my family history

My cousin Harv was serving in the U.S. Army when I was born in 1944. His obituary, at age 94, leaps from his birth in 1928 to his PhD in molecular biochemistry at the University of Chicago in 1952, the beginning of a distinguished lifelong career as a lab researcher. No war stories were told in my family. 

Years later, I recall how moved I was to hear one of my herbal medicine classmates talk about her family’s multi-generational military service. There was an honest, humble, touching pride that rang of actual patriotism, a word I had learned to shrink away from, and continue to shrink away from today, sadly feeling very little good can come from it.

During my elementary school years, we observed Decoration Day with lapel-sized American flag glued, I believe, onto toothpicks. For most of my adult life, the Memorial Day into which it morphed meant a day off from work marked by splashy full-sized sales adds.

Memorial Day, 2021 has a host of provocative resonances and stories. Surrogate cemetery visits follow a year of truncated funerals.

The Washington Post reported on Emily Domenech  who found herself virtually alone in Arlington Cemetery when she made her annual pilgrimage to her grandfather’s grave in the early raging days of Covid-19, Memorial Day 2020.

I’ve visited Arlington on what I’d also describe as a pilgrimage, to the memorial of President John F. Kennedy. I recall the overall effect of six-hundred and twenty-five lightly rolling acres, many of them in ordered rows numbering some 400,000 uniform tombstones, as a rolling ocean wave frozen in time.

Domenech’s planned half-hour visit grew to six hours as strangers responded to her Tweet gone viral: “Does anyone have buddies buried in Arlington who they would like visited today?” she asked. “Since only family members are allowed in, I would be honored to pay respects on your behalf …”

This year, her personal efforts have been amplified by the Travis Manion Foundation, a support organization for veterans and their families. #TheHonor Project arranged to place small American flags at 4,000 gravesites and invited family members to register online to have a volunteer visit a loved one’s grave.

As in civilian life, so in the military.

A portion of The  Arlington National Cemetery website is devoted to its Black history from the Civil War through Vietnam. Segregation. Denied promotion. Race-based pay scales. This is what marked the service of Black people in the U.S. armed services.

You wouldn’t know there was a Black Wall Street in Tulsa from the Standard American Education

As I write this, President Biden is traveling to Tulsa, Oklahoma to participate in a public ceremony that marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre on June 1.

If you are hearing about this event for the first time, it is because the rioters were white, and because the history most of us were taught was White-washed. “Facts” surrounding the spark that set off the fear and rage of white citizens are not well-established: there was a reported elevator encounter between a young Black man, Dick Rowland, and a young White woman, Sarah Page. Stories spread by word of mouth, the social media of its day, and, amplified by the local daily, the Tulsa Tribune, which ran as its front-page story “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In Elevator.”

The Tribune ran an editorial in the same edition: “To Lynch Tonight.” Like other documents related to the events, that editorial is “now-lost,” having been torn out of the paper by the time the Works Progress Administration went to microfilm old issues in the 1930s. Professor of Afro American and African studies at the University of Michigan Scott Ellsworth details, among other erasures, that the Chief of Police sent his officers to every photograph studio in the city to “confiscate all the pictures taken of the carnage.” A cache of photos was later discovered, and used by a 1997 Commission on which Ellsworth served. The Commission concluded by recommending reparations for survivors and their descendants.  Dutton has recently published his investigative research in The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice.

Meanwhile, in my awareness, the absence of known burial grounds stands as a dark monolith against the pristine hills of Arlington.

Of course, the last days, perhaps months and years of the lives of servicemen and servicewomen buried in Arlington were hardly pristine. Glory accrued after death, after the gore of life.

Still, each one’s burial site is marked and treated with honor. 

The unidentified dead too are honored at Arlington by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which also observes its 100th anniversary this year. An honor guard has stood watch at the Tomb 24/7 since 1937. Their movements are choreographed in time and space by the number 21, enacting “the highest symbolic military honor that can be bestowed: the 21-gun salute.” 

In Tulsa, historians now estimate 100-300 dead, in contrast to 38 deaths “officially” confirmed. A mass grave was discovered in the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery last October, where archaeologists found a dozen coffins. “Full excavation and exhumation” of the site is to begin June 1, the same day as President Biden’s arrival. 

The 35 square blocks of homes, businesses, churches, schools, hospitals torched in the Tulsa Massacre is equivalent to 56 acres, approximately one of every 11 acres of Arlington Cemetery’s spread. 

Buck Colbert Franklin, a Black attorney, left these words among his ten-page hand-written eyewitness account:

“I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top.” As he left his law office, he noted, “The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top,” he continues. “I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”

Acres of white tombstones.

Acres of torched lives.

100 years mark the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

100 years mark the Unknown Burial Sites of Tulsa.

I’m doing my best to hold these together in my consciousness at the same time.

Because we must, as we sit with the question, “Where do we go from here?” 

Oddly, I find Israeli rock singer Avi Bellieli’s lyrics capture the totality of my thoughts and feelings  

Where is everyone going all of a sudden…

Everything recedes and disappears

Only the words are afloat…

Where do we go from here?

Banner photo: Friends and Lovers – painting by Chris  Graebner, Hillsborough Gallery of Arts Hillsborough, NC.

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