Thursday, May 28, 2020
May 28, 2020: Decoration Day Histories: “Rodman the Keeper”
[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On the text that helps us remember a community for whom Decoration Day’s meanings didn’t shift.
In Monday’s post, I highlighted a brief but important scene in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s short story “Rodman the Keeper” (1880). John Rodman, Woolson’s protagonist, is a (Union) Civil War veteran who has taken a job overseeing a Union cemetery in the South; and in this brief but important scene, he observes a group of African Americans (likely former slaves) commemorate Decoration Day by leaving tributes to those fallen Union soldiers. Woolson’s narrator describes the event in evocative but somewhat patronizing terms: “They knew dimly that the men who lay beneath those mounds had done something wonderful for them and for their children; and so they came bringing their blossoms, with little intelligence but with much love.” But she gives the last word in this striking scene to one of the celebrants himself: “we’s kep’ de day now two years, sah, befo’ you came, sah, an we’s teachin’ de chil’en to keep it, sah.”
“Rodman” is set sometime during Reconstruction—perhaps in 1870 specifically, since the first Decoration Day was celebrated in 1868 and the community has been keeping the day for two years—and, as I noted in yesterday’s post, by the 1876 end of that historical period the meaning of Decoration Day on the national level had begun to shift dramatically. But as historian David Blight has frequently noted, such as in the piece hyperlinked in my intro section above and as quoted in this article on Blight’s magisterial book Race and Reunion (2002), the holiday always had a different meaning for African Americans than for other American communities, and that meaning continued to resonate for that community through those broader national shifts. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that as the national meaning shifted away from the kinds of remembrance for which Frederick Douglass argued in his 1871 speech, it became that much more necessary and vital for African Americans to practice that form of critical commemoration (one, to correct Woolson’s well-intended but patronizing description, that included just as much intelligence as love).
In an April 1877 editorial reflecting on the end of Reconstruction, the Nation magazine predicted happily that one effect of that shift would be that “the negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” Besides representing one of the lowest points in that periodical’s long history, the editorial quite clearly illustrates why the post-Reconstruction national meaning of Decoration Day seems to have won out over the African American one (a shift that culminated, it could be argued, in the change of name to Memorial Day, which began being used as an alternative as early as 1882): because prominent, often white supremacist national voices wanted it to be so. Which is to say, it wasn’t inevitable that the shift would occur or the new meaning would win out—and while we can’t change what happened in our history, we nonetheless can (as I’ll argue at greater length tomorrow) push back and remember the original and, for the African American community, ongoing meaning of Decoration Day.
Last Decoration Day history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?