By Wayne E. Williams,
Special to the AFRO

When my long-term colleague Carolyn Long-Williams invited me to attend the reburial service and ceremony for her late husband, Pfc Lamar Williams, at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), the suggestion captivated me.

For years, Long-Williams and I were coworkers as special education teachers. We never mentioned or conversed much about our personal lives.

One day Long-Williams told me about her very young husband, Pfc Lamar Williams, who was killed in action (KIA) on April 13, 1971 during the Vietnam War. I gladly accepted the invitation to honor a Black man who gave his life in service to his country. Not until that Tuesday morning, Aug. 7, 2019, did I have reason to visit that historic place.

According to information released by ANC, “Arlington officially became a national cemetery on June 15, 1864, by order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The original cemetery was 200 acres, and has since grown to 639 acres (as of early 2020).”

Though ANC was meant to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, records show that the space “became a segregated cemetery, just like all national cemeteries at the time, and remained segregated by race and rank until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military.”

“The primary burial ground for white Civil War soldiers became Section 13. Meanwhile, Section 27 became the area for African American soldiers and freed people; more than 3,800 freed African Americans are buried in Section 27,” according to Arlington National Cemetery reports. “Today, approximately 400,000 veterans and their eligible dependents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Service members from every one of America’s major wars, from the Revolutionary War to today’s conflicts, are interred at ANC. As a result, the history of our nation is reflected on the grounds of the cemetery.”

Widows of war

Long-Williams’ strong faith has helped her over the years since losing her husband in war.

The Vietnam War was an overwhelming conflict for all parties involved. She was the wife of a proud U. S. Army soldier in the 1970s. But when she lost her husband, she joined thousands of Black women from around the country who found themselves drafted into a club of war widows.

According to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, a total of 58,220 Americans died during the Vietnam war. Records show that number included 7,242 Black service members who gave their lives along with Long-Williams’ husband.

“We were high school sweethearts,” she recalled in an interview, of the bond only broken in death.

Today’s military personnel are men and women who made the commitment to serve in our Armed forces. They are fathers, mothers, brothers, aunts, sisters and cousins— all members of a family unit and a community that is affected when a soldier gives their life.

Memorial Day: rooted in Black history

Memorial Day should never be confused with Veterans Day. KIA armed forces personnel must always be honored as veterans, too.

Memorial Day is the federal holiday in the United States that occurs on the last Monday in May. It’s our national observance honoring our military casualties of war who have served in the United States Armed Forces.

The holiday is solid proof that the African-American contributions are finely woven into the tapestry of America—and can never be extracted.

The National Museum of History reports that “one of the most important antecedents of the modern Memorial Day was a Decoration Day organized by freedman’s relief organizations and formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.”

What took place on that date is recorded as “one of a series of celebrations in the destroyed city to mark the end of the war; this event was orchestrated by the African American citizens of Charleston to mark and decorate the graves of the 257 Union prisoners who died at the Charleston Race Course, which had been converted to a Confederate prison.”

According to the National History Museum “thousands of freedmen, including almost 3,000 black schoolchildren, gathered to decorate the graves with flowers and beautify the graveyard, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, ‘Martyrs of the Race Course’ in what is now Hampton Park.”

More than a century later, African Americans are still answering the call for duty. Today, the United States military consists of men and women who volunteer to serve in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force or Coast Guard. Volunteering is the personal sacrifice of individuals giving time for service in our military.

There are so many words of valor that can be expressed concerning those who have chosen to serve in our U.S. military. This Memorial Day, we say “thank you!” We honor those who courageously fought and forever say the names of those who died— like Pfc Lamar Williams— in great service to this nation.

Wayne E. Williams is a special education and guest teacher at Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. He is a Class of ‘86 graduate of South Carolina State University.