History Matters: Diversifying the story of our past

The Palmetto Historical Commission was recently offered a memorial plaque created in 1919 to honor local WWI veterans.
The Palmetto Historical Commission was recently offered a memorial plaque created in 1919 to honor local WWI veterans. Provided photo

The Palmetto Historical Commission was recently offered a memorial plaque created in 1919 to honor local WWI veterans … at least some of them. While researching her book, “Palmetto: Images of America Series,” Merab Favorite discovered that there were 55 WWI veterans who weren’t included on the plaque. All of the veterans whose names appear on the plaque were white; all the “forgotten” veterans were black.

Favorite noticed that African-Americans made up a disproportionate percentage of those in the service compared to the population: while blacks only made up about 10 percent of the national population, they accounted for 13 percent of inductees in the military. With an insufficient number of voluntary troops, Congress passed an act requiring all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for the draft. It has been theorized that African-American men saw the war as an opportunity to prove their loyalty, patriotism and worthiness for equal treatment. A full third of WWI veterans from Palmetto were African-American, meaning that a black man from Palmetto was much more likely to serve than a white man from Palmetto. Despite the patriotism found in Palmetto’s African-American community, their sacrifices were not acknowledged on the plaque.

Four years before this plaque was created, Washington, D.C., hosted a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation. Thousands of African-Americans traveled from across the country to see exhibits highlighting the progress made since the destruction of slavery. After attending this celebration, Carter G. Woodson, with a Harvard Ph.D. under his belt, decided to form an organization to promote the scientific study of black life and history. This led to Woodson’s establishment of The Journal of Negro History in 1916 and Negro History Week in 1926 (which eventually became our current Black History Month). President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” He accurately pointed out that we specifically study black history because it has often been left out of “regular” history.

In the case of our WWI Memorial plaque, the Palmetto Historical Commission has decided to accept it into their collection. It will be displayed along with interpretive signage explaining the history of the plaque and how prejudices of the time influenced which veterans were included. It is our hope that this will honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans.

History is too complex for one individual’s account to give a full picture of how things used to be. To get an accurate depiction of our past, we must read multiple stories from people of different races, ages, genders, etc.

Winston Churchill said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” While not all of us can go down in history books like Churchill, collecting oral histories has become more popular because it puts the recording of history into the hands of regular people. This helps add dimension and diversity to the story of our past, but it is also personally empowering.

Every one of us can write our own story — and that is powerful. If you want to start recording your own history, get in touch with us about checking out an Oral History Kit. If you can tell us any stories about Palmetto’s African-American history, please contact me about our upcoming Black History Exhibition which will open February.

Tori Chasey Edwards, curator at Palmetto Historical Park, can be reached at tori.edwards@manateeclerk.com, 941-723-4991. Tori enjoys horrifying schoolchildren by explaining the nature and use of chamber pots. She calls it education.