The observance of the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Bureau of Colored Troops in the District oof Columbia ccurred this week, only a few days before Memorial Day. It seems fitting that the sesquicentennial of the Colored Troops Bureau falls close to the day originally set aside to remember those killed in the Civil War.
More than 180,000 African American soldiers and sailors served in the Union Army and Navy. Nearly 68,000 died.
Those African American service members were honored Wednesday at a wreath-laying ceremony and a program at the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum on Vermont Avenue NW in Washington.
The event, organized by the museum’s founder and director, Frank Smith, was well-attended and inspirational but low-key. There was not even a cameo appearance by Mayor Vincent Gray or a member of the D.C. Council. If any District of Columbia elected official sent a representative to the commemoration, the gesture went unannounced and unnoticed.
Those “colored troops” deserved better from Washington. After all, the 28th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops and soldiers with Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, were among the units assigned to the defense of Washington during the Civil War.
Paid less than their white Union comrades, those black soldiers and sailors courageously fought in nearly 500 engagements, including, according to military records, 39 major battles.
My great-grandfather, Isaiah King of New Bedford, Mass., was one of the black Union soldiers. He enlisted at 16 and was assigned to Company D of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry in 1864. He participated in the Siege of Petersburg that year. His unit, according to official records, was among the first Union regiments to enter Richmond, Va. on April 3, 1865.
The African American troops fought to keep the Union together and to free their enslaved brothers and sisters in the South. They volunteered to fight at a time when the country that sent them off to war did not treat them as equals.
In a speech urging President Abraham Lincoln to allow freed blacks to fight in the Union Army, the famed 19th-century black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass said: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket; and there is no power on the earth . . . which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
Those black soldiers and sailors served, fought and died years before the 15th Amendment, granting African American men the right to vote, was ratified in 1870 — a right that, in reality, went unfulfilled for nearly a century.
But that is not what this weekend is all about.
This is the time to honor those Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation, who have given their all in service to our nation.
“The blood of heroes never dies,” Moina Michael wrote in a 1915 poem.
The fallen from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and all of the conflicts in between deserve a moment of respect. This ought to be a time when the living set aside their daily cares, albeit temporarily, to remember and honor those who made the supreme sacrifice.
Think of those boys who walked off farms and away from families to take up arms on behalf of a nation fighting to keep from falling apart.
Think of kids loaded on planes and ships and sent to foreign lands to fight in defense of their country’s interests. Think of the families left with only memories — and graves to decorate.
Doing that may be easier said than done.
Holiday observers will be competing against events such as Best Buy’s “Memorial Day Kickoff to Summer Event,”Home Depot’s “Memorial Day Savings” and “Marlo’s Memorial Day Sale — Furniture 50% Off Entire Store.”
The choice: Attend a Memorial Day parade or visit a cemetery to remember our fallen, or navigate to Coupons.com and get Memorial Day sales and “extra discounts on top of already low prices from hundreds of stores including: Macy’s, JCPenney, Home Depot, Target, Walgreens, DressBarn, and BabiesRUs.”
It may be all Memorial Day can do to get a word in edgewise.
In between the holiday sales and tips on how to enjoy a three-day weekend, give some thought to those in our country’s history who gave their last full measure of devotion.
That’s what this Army veteran will do.
Colbert King is a former deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.