Under the baobab: American heroes, white and Black, sacrificed for the good of us all

The Union Cemetery in Bellefonte includes many veterans.

Centre Daily Times, file

“At last the out-spread wings of the American Eagle affords shelter and protection to men of all colors, all countries, and all climes, and the long oppressed black man may honorably fall or gloriously flourish under the star-spangled banner…. the paper proclamation (Emancipation) must now be made iron, lead and fire, by the prompt employment of the Negro’s arm in this contest.” -Frederick Douglass, speaking in NYC about Blacks being allowed in the Union Army, 1863

Later that year, heeding Douglass’ call, 19-year-old Charles Garner Sr. left his home in Williamsport to join Company K, of the 6th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, where he served with distinction. He and 180,000 African American soldiers helped the Union win the Civil War. They represented three quarters of the replacement troops enlisted from 1863 to 1865 once the Emancipation Proclamation permitted Blacks to serve. After the war, Garner settled in Bellefonte. In 1868 he married Mary Gilmore, the half sister of Adeline Lawson. Their son, Charles, was the first Black graduate of Bellefonte Area High School. In 1880, Charles Sr. had a spiritual conversion at St. Paul AME and ultimately became a pastor, serving congregations all over central Pennsylvania.

Around the same time, 18-year-old Isaiah Henderson Welch enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts, Colored Troops. He and his parents had been born into slavery in Maryland. They escaped on the underground railroad to settle in Bellefonte. One of the most well-known Colored companies, the 54th Massachusetts distinguished itself by leading the charge against the impregnable Confederate Fort Wagner in South Carolina. After the war he was part of Wilberforce University’s first graduating class in 1870 and was ordained a minister. When St. Paul’s AME was destroyed by fire, Rev. Welch helped raise money to rebuild it.

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A thousand miles away in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Curtis McKenzie was liberated from enslavement when Union General Grant lifted his siege of the city. Curtis enlisted in the 52nd Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry, attached to the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, United States Colored Troops, District of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Curtis was my great-great grandfather. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, and the enlistment of nearly 200,000 mostly formerly enslaved African Americans are what won the Civil War for the Union.

During the Civil War many African Americans from Centre County served in the military. Some are listed on the Soldiers Monument in front of the courthouse: Austin Alexander, William Derry, Alexander Delice, Hartsock Delice, Alexander Green, William Green, Frank Johnson, William Harding, Isaac Johnson, Moses Johnson, Washington Johnson, Benjamin Lee, Charles Lee, Edward Mills, Lewis Mills, John C. Whitton, John Whitton, Jacob Williams, Aaron Whorley, Aaron C. Whorley, Charles Garner, David Price, Thomas Taylor, Alfred Johnson and Lewis A. Chase. Several are buried in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery. Their graves are tended to by Prof. Renea Nichols and Commander Lisa Carey (USN). Lisa has begun placing markers on the unmarked graves that have been discovered, many of which may belong to veterans.

The patriots buried there are American heroes, coming from a long line of Americans who have left blood on the field in defense of the better angels of our nation. Our country has had an inglorious history of racial oppression, but it has a greater history of courageous people, white and Black, who sacrificed for the good of us all. We honor them today, all of them. Happy Memorial Day.

This week, we honor another great American who has joined the ancestors. I did not know Tina Turner personally, but she was an inspiration to us all, especially those women who fought and survived domestic abuse. One of her popular songs was “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” Ironically we did and she was. May flights of angels sing her to her rest.

Charles Dumas is a lifetime political activist, a professor emeritus from Penn State, and was the Democratic Party’s nominee for U.S. Congress in 2012. He was the 2022 Lion’s Paw Awardee and Living Legend honoree of the National Black Theatre Festival. He lives with his partner and wife of 50 years in State College.

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