African-American veterans honored at Piney Grove Cemetery

Under a cloudy sky, veterans and their family and friends gathered Monday at Piney Grove Cemetery to honor fallen members of the U.S. Armed Forces – including almost 60 buried in the historic African-American cemetery.

The ceremony was the 16th Annual Memorial Day Service held at the cemetery, established in the late 19th century to serve African-American communities nearby.

Many of the veterans were buried in unmarked graves, said retired U.S. Navy Capt. James Washington, who spoke about the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who fought in World War I, decades before their mid-century fight for civil rights reached its height.

Blacks saw the “war as an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism” and thought that “greater citizenship would be the result,” said Washington, who grew up in the Piney Grove area and moved back after living out of state for several years.

But the reality after the war was increased lynchings in the South, including of some African-American soldiers, Washington said.

The war had another impact, he added.

“War deepened the commitment of the African American to combat racism, swelled pride ... and gave us a view of our rightful place in American society,” Washington said.

The weather did not interrupt the ceremony, which included the presentation of the American flag, prayers, retelling of veterans’ stories and the playing of Taps. A picture of President Barack Obama was propped against the podium.

But the buzz of traffic along I-26 and the nearby Harbison shopping district in northwest Columbia did sweep steadily across the grave stones, marked with flower arrangements and dandelion shoots.

Washington finished his talk with a plea to the audience to research the role African Americans played in U.S. military conflicts and share those histories with others.

“We have a duty,” he said. “Tell their story to all you know.”

Christine Burton presented a wreath adorned with small red flowers and grave sites – a replica of the cemetery, said Burton, who has organized the Memorial Day service each year.

Boys walked the cemetery, hammering flags into the ground at the grave sites of veterans.

Speakers reminded the audience that Memorial Day is not just about celebrating fallen veterans.

It’s about protecting freedom “by voting in elections or speaking out against injustices,” volunteering and teaching children about “what it really means to be Americans,” said Audrey Smith, who recruits women to get involved with the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization and whose late husband was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

“Memorial Day isn’t just for deceased veterans,” she added. “It’s a day for all American freedom fighters. It is a day to remember why they were fighting.”

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