Today, we celebrate Memorial Day in the United States, a day where we remember those who died serving their country. In May 1865, less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered, ending the Civil War, recently freed African Americans celebrated Decoration Day. On May 1, 1865, 10,000 people, largely formerly enslaved individuals, gathered and marched around the Charleston racetrack, commemorating the 260 Union soldiers who died when the Confederacy transformed the racetrack into a prison during the war. They marched to remember those who died so that they could be free.
As we celebrate Memorial Day, I want to expand the ways that we think about this day and its importance. When we think about Memorial Day, we think about men and women who died in combat. We do not always think about those who died before or after combat, and this is what I want to focus on today, specifically a couple of events where African American soldiers were killed not on the battlefields of World War II but on the streets of the United States as they prepared to go and fight for freedom abroad.
A month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Black soldiers from Camp Claiborne in central Louisiana went to the town of Alexandria on Saturday January 10, 1942, for some R&R. Most of the soldiers were from the North, and on that night, a Black soldier supposedly stepped in front of a car driven by a white woman. The woman called the police, and the shooting started. As Doug Bristol puts it, the woman “called the local police officer over who of course immediately started to arrest him and other soldiers that had come out with him that night, came around and this became a police riot because one among the things they reported where police were doing things like just shooting into black barbershops. So it just became this rampage through the Lee St. area.” The other narrative is that a white MP beat an African American soldier in front of the Ritz Movie Theater and the crowd reacted, protesting the beating.
Lee Street was, as the recent marker erected to remember the massacre indicates, “a thriving African-American community in the 1940s. The area included churches, eating establishments, grocery stores, entertainment venues, a sporting arena, an Army-YMCA-USA building and the Ritz Theater.” It was a neighborhood akin, in many ways, to Greenwood. While the initial spark for the massacre came from a Black man “disrespecting” a white woman and not “knowing his place,” the underlying context runs deeper. Thinking about the prosperity on Lee Street, the African American community thrived, countering white’s perceptions and their feelings of superiority. As well, whites would view the northern soldiers as invaders, not knowing their place within the social hierarchy of Jim Crow.
Around 2,000 to 3,000 African Americans were on Lee Street that night, and the African American soldiers were not armed. About 90 white police (both local and state) descended on Lee Street and in attempts to “quell the unrest,” they shot blindly into the crowd. As Bayou Brief notes, 60 of the 90 officers who responded were military police. The local newspaper reported that officers used 30 gas bombs that night on Lee Street. We do not know how many Blacks were murdered that night. Most estimates place the victims around 20; however, countless civilians were murdered or wounded. The US military claimed that no one died that night on Lee Street, cordoning off the area and suppressing any narrative to the contrary.
At this time, we do not know how many individuals were murdered that night in 1942. Last November, an anonymous letter appeared which indicated that a mass grave was at Holly Oak Cemetery, an African American cemetery established in 1923 in Pineville, a city near Alexandria. Mike Wynne led a team to map the cemetery and determine if the grave was there. At this time, they do not know because they’d have to exhume the spots that they identified, and this creates other issues.
Etta Compton’s husband was a business proprietor on Lee Street, and she kept the event alive by talking with others about it. She would place a wreath where the Ritz Theater used to be, and when she got older and unable to do that she passed the tradition on to the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club . Every Memorial Day, members of the club lay a wreath at the spot to commemorate the soldiers and others who perished that night in 1942.
The events that occurred on Lee Street point out, in clear detail, what African American soldiers faced and endured. It points out the importance of the Double V Campaign. It points out the importance of Joe Louis standing up and refusing to put on exhibition matches unless Jackie Robinson and others got commissioned as officers. It points out the underlying causes of the events in Beaumont, Texas, in June 1943. It serves as a stark reminder of the Red Summer of 1919 when white backlash to African American soldiers returning from Europe sparked a summer of racial violence. It serves as a reminder of the still deep seated white supremacist views that exist within the military as Talia Lavin notes and those arrested for the January 6 insurrection indicate.
Lee Street is just on of many examples that points to the murderous violence of white supremacy and to the ways that it dumps dirt over its sins, burying it in mass graves where no one will ever think to look. Lee Street highlights the brute force of white supremacy that attacks any challenge to its power as it showed during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and more. We must not forget Lee Street or other massacres. Memorial Day is a day to remember the men and women of the military who sacrificed their lives for our freedoms. That narrative must include the soldiers who were murdered, by their own countrymen, on Lee Street, in Harlem, in Beaumont, and elsewhere.
As one African American soldier who trained at Camp Claiborne said, “I don’t know ho I got to safety after the riot. I only know one thing and that is, whenever anybody says, ‘Remember Pearl Harbor,’ I will say, ‘I will remember Lee Street.'”