At the site of a battle that began the end of a war to decide whether any men should be allowed to own other men, we still concentrate on the battle rather than its meaning. The people over whom all that blood and treasure was shed remain largely ignored.
Black people lived in Adams County before that great battle in July 1863. They lived and worked on York Street in Gettysburg, and in the area around Breckenridge and High streets, and later went to school where a beer store now stands. They formed a community near Bendersville, with a church and graveyard built on Black-owned land. They likely worked area iron forges as they moved northward along the Underground Railroad.
Private Charles H. Parker, Company F, 3rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, was equal enough to fight on the Union side in the Civil War. When he died, more than a decade after the war’s end, his body was interred on Yellow Hill, in Bendersville. He, like other African-American soldiers, was not equal to be interred in the same ground as White warriors with whom they had fought and died.
Kitty Payne, who had lived as a slave in Virginia, was freed in 1843 and took up life in Adams County. Two years later, five men, under cover of night, kidnapped Payne and her three children from their home near Bendersville and dragged them back to slavery.
Eventually, she returned to live in Adams County; her grave is in Lincoln Cemetery, on Gettysburg’s Long Lane. With all the rhetoric over racial advances, and the need for more (advances, not rhetoric), one could be forgiven for wondering why Charlie Parker lay unrespected for seven decades. Or why Kitty Payne’s grave lies moldering.
Why, in fact, are not other African-Americans recognized for their contributions to the community, whether they were war heroes, former slaves, or operators of small businesses. They worked here and owned property and raised children. Some of their descendants have earned college degrees. One is known to have married a well-respected newspaper publisher, and likely bore some responsibility for her husband’s success.
A petition has been started online to remove Confederate monuments from the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a fair question. In the so-called Second Gulf War, when we took down Saddam Hussein, we toppled his statue on worldwide television. We removed not only the tyrant, but the shrine constructed to glorify him.
There is good reason for keeping the statues on the battlefield. The Gettysburg National Military Park is an open-air museum. Unlike many statues erected in town squares, many of them a century after the war ended and to celebrate the defeated side of the conflict, the monuments on the GNMP are guideposts on our shrine dedicated to those who fought and died to bring the nation closer to its ideal of equality and justice for all.
It is a fight we still are waging.
But we must end glorification of those who led their youth in a fight to maintain an economic system that relied on treating some of our fellow humans as so much farm machinery. Suspicion and fear cannot be turned off like a light switch, but we can start by removing symbols that encourage, implicitly or by inference, suspicion and fear of people who are not like us – whoever us are.
Without a past against which to measure what was, there is no possible gauge of what could be.
Statues on the battlefield, and a Black museum in town – the cost and the promise of the first four days in July.
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