Memorial Day in Beaufort still marches to the cadence of a proud African-American history

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 24, 2014 

Memorial Day in Beaufort County springs from a small building with a big place in history.

Since 1896, Beaufort's Grand Army of the Republic Hall has acted as the nerve center for the city's tribute to war dead.

Beaufort's annual parade, once led by the Allen Brass Band, used to start its slow wind to the decorated graves in the Beaufort National Cemetery from the white clapboard building on Newcastle Street.

Because Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War, its commemoration here has for generations been led by African Americans, beginning with those most thankful for the sacrifices made for a Union victory.

The Grand Army Hall was built as home to David Hunter Post No. 9 of the national Civil War veterans' organization, called the Grand Army of the Republic.

Nationally, this was a powerful organization that claimed five presidents among its members and was instrumental in gaining federal pensions for more and more Civil War veterans. It stressed fraternity, charity and loyalty.

In Beaufort County, where posts also were organized on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, the organization was made up primarily of African-American veterans who were among the first blacks enlisted in the U.S. Army.

The Grand Army Hall now stands as a living monument to freedom, bought with heavy price throughout American history.

DECORATION DAY

Memorial Day turns out to be the greatest legacy of the Grand Army of the Republic, which closed its national office in 1956.

In 1868, its national leader declared that May 30 would be a day for members to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. He got the idea from his wife, who had observed Confederate graves being decorated in Virginia.

That was a tall order for Beaufort, where the Grand Army roster in 1894 showed 66 members, and the tombstones in the national cemetery numbered more than 8,000.

They got help from allied organizations, which still exist, still maintain the Grand Army Hall and still organize Memorial Day events: the Woman's Relief Corps, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Then as now, school children help decorate the graves with small American flags.

And for decades people from many places flocked to what was called Decoration Day in Beaufort. They came by boat, train, buggy -- and later car and bus -- from Charleston, Savannah, Columbia, Augusta and the Sea Islands.

Speeches might include Republican Party leaders. The parade would include Marine Corps bands. Addie Lee Marsh, now 90 but then a civil service worker at Parris Island, recalls Marines in the band telling her to "fall in" behind them.

In the 1960s, Boundary Street was lined with vendors selling food on Decoration Day. Carnival rides and shows were set up in a field by what is today a boat dealership next to the cemetery. Outside, children might pay 15 cents to see a man with no body, while inside Sam Stokes' large car garage, adults danced to sultry tunes.

"Beaufort was IT at one time," said the man organizing this year's events, Dr. Elijah Washington.

ROLE MODELS

The old Decoration Day has died, but the Grand Army Hall and Memorial Day traditions live on.

The hall was a place for Civil War veterans to talk, relax, and plan community aid.

It was home to the Commandment Keeper Church in 1940, when a colleague of Margaret Mead and noted author Zora Neale Hurston stepped inside to film a documentary on the Gullah culture.

It has been a daycare center and community meeting place. Its yard has been used as a cemetery.

Today, the building is used for weddings, talks and seminars. Fish fries and prize drawings are held to pay for maintenance. An historical marker was dedicated last summer by the Beaufort County Historical Society.

But the hall serves a much greater purpose, says the head of the Fred S. Washington Sr. Woman's Relief Corps.

"You can come here and feel a sense of pride," said Alice Washington, a daughter of the organization's namesake.

A collection of dolls throughout the room collected by her sister, Delo Washington, gives glimpses into Beaufort's proud African-American history. Dolls depict attorney J.I. Washington, veterinarian Willie Pigler and Dr. Montgomery Kennedy. Preachers, teachers and mothers are shown to remind new generations of solid, old role models.

To a lot of people, African Americans were invisible, Washington said, "but here we were taught, no, we're just as good; we can achieve just as much; we can be just as successful as anyone else."

Washington said the old hall is important to the history of Beaufort in many ways.

Especially on Memorial Day.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service