My Memorial Day memories: Former slaves honoring the dead

I was among the few chosen ones.

I don’t recall ‘sleeping in’ on Memorial Day as a child growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. I do not know how it happened that I was awakened early each Memorial Day Monday to accompany my maternal great-grandmother, Edna Robinson, and at least two other family members to the cemeteries. We arrived early to greet the morning dew upon the grassy knolls. Our task was to place fresh plants near the grave markers of our loved ones.

I vividly recall Grandma Robinson’s words to me and others as she used her tender hands to dig out spaces to place each new plant in the ground. Even though my mother or cousin would bring along tools to help Grandma Robinson with her mini excavations, (the worms would always greet us and seek to find new, cool hiding spaces)she would turn them down.

Grandma Robinson believed in honoring our ancestors by using her hands or a nearby stick, if available, to tend to the soil. While busy in her planting, Grandma Robinson often recalled how former slaves started the tradition of Memorial Day as a way to pay tribute to the black soldiers returning home from the war.

“They forgot about the colored soldiers,” Grandma Robinson always said without specifying the “who” in her recollections.

But I figured out who she was speaking of as I read more and more about Memorial Day, yet did not see the historical references that I first heard from my grandmother.

Grandma Robinson told me a lot more about the importance of remembering those who many forget upon their deaths. Through her example, Grandma Robinson taught me how to kneel upon the earth and dig into its richness. While in a kneeling position, we ALWAYS prayed in a quiet manner. She said prayers should be spoken in soft tones as we walk and work throughout the day. That was my first hint at how Grandma Robinson withstood the likely poor treatment while caring for other folks’ houses and children.

Each year as we returned to the graves of our loved ones, I would look for the plants we plotted in the previous years. Some were completely wiped out by the winter’s snow or other seasonal heat. Some plants were either trampled on or somehow pushed into the dirt where only a tiny flower bud peeped from the ground. Once Grandma Robinson saw a glimmer of life in one of our previously planted vines, she would carefully dig around it and gird it up to continue its growth.

We also did not leave a gravesite area without helping to pull back the grass overgrowth on graves with numbers engraved in cement to mark burial locations. That taught me to look out for my neighbors and honor them with the blessings that we had. Often, if we had a plant or two left over, Grandma Robinson would lead us to a burial site where someone she knew was placed beneath the earth. We always left the cemeteries with empty containers that once carried in the plants.

Learning is loving and respecting and doing. I got it all in my annual visit to the Omaha cemeteries to honor our dead and the legacy of the holiday.

Although I will not be in our maternal family’s home cemetery site in Springfield, Missouri to place a plant in the ground in honor of Grandma Robinson, I know that my family members will do so and thereby honor my grandmother and our ancestors.

Photo: Dr. Rex-wordpress.com

For more information about Memorial Day’s founding and its alternative observances by Confederate-loyal folk, see http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1900454,00.html
And
https://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/untold-story-memorial-day-former-slaves-honoring-and-mourning-dead
And more. Check out remembrances from your eldest family members.

Ann L. Wead Kimbrough is an accomplished educator, award-winning financial journalist, author, special events leader, mentor and prolific contributor to select global and domestic non-profit causes. Her blog topics include travel, history, humor, education, career, family, journalism and ‘thought you should know’ subjects. https://www.linkedin.com/in/annlineve/

About awkimbrough

I'm fortunate to lead digital native students as they gain more experience and confidence in their naturally creative work. For those who want to read a traditional "About Me" here it is: I am a visiting faculty member @my grad school, Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications. Previously, I served as dean and professor of multimedia, innovative journalism in the Journalism & Graphic Design School at Florida A&M University. As an award-winning journalist and higher ed executive, my latest high profile project involves the multi-faceted development of a 'teaching hospital' formed via a public-private partnership and located on the FAMU campus. The public-private partnership's outcome is a multi-million-dollar, annual economic benefit to the north Florida region with direct benefits to communication students enrolled in programs at FAMU. FAMU's administration and board canceled the project. It has been a rewarding career where I have been transforming lives in education, government, and media for more 25 years. Also, as a ghost and co-writer of literary works that highlight the careers and lives of accomplished world shapers I am achieving a valued use of my talents and skills.
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