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COMMENTARY: WE ALL BE Remembering Fort Pillow, 160 Years Later

By Ronald C. Herd II, Special to The Tri-State Defender

“Remember Fort Pillow!” was the battle cry, and 160 years later, The W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Group, Inc. (WeAllBe) honored the immortal words and sacrifices of our ancestors. April 12 this year was the actual 160th anniversary of nearly 300 souls, mostly U.S. Colored Troops, white Union soldiers, and even Black women and children, meeting their demise by being martyred and massacred by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (notorious slave trader, co-founder and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) and his 1,500-member-plus Confederate Army.

This atrocity happened during the American Civil War (1861-1864). Controversy still lingers to this day on what really happened. A U.S. Congressional inquiry was conducted by interviewing individuals from both sides of the conflict, participants and eyewitnesses alike. After the investigation, the following conclusion was stated by the 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on May 3, 1864: “It is now quite certain that a large number of our colored soldiers, with their officers, were, by the rebel force, massacred after they had surrendered, at the recent capture of Fort Pillow.”

This April 2024, WeAllBe dedicated two weeks to commemorate this bloody chapter in United States history, to give honor to those “Righteous AnceSTARs” who made the ultimate sacrifice so that their kin and descendants could live ‘free’ for generations to come. The commemoration started on April 6 at the opening reception for the art show “Using Our Art To Tell Our Stories III: We Remember Fort Pillow (What About The Legacies?)” at the prestigious Withers Collection Museum & Gallery at 333 Beale Street.

Entertainment for the event was provided by gifted performers DJ Kai’yrs Slayer, Jackie Murray, Bridge Muhammad & Yung Praise. The art exhibit, which runs through April 20, features the works of ten supremely talented Black visual storytellers, with each offering their own unique perspectives on the Fort Pillow Massacre as well as their interpretations of its aftermath/legacy. The featured artists are Carl Moore, Phillip Dotson, Darlene Newman, Myke Newman, Sir Walt, Madame Z., Marz Rockswell, Fatia Webb, Roy Hawkins, Jr., & R2C2H2 Tha Artivist (Ronald C. Herd II).

April 10, “The WE ALL BE Remembering Fort Pillow 160 Years Later” Legacy Awards took place at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church. This was done as a tribute to great Black Memphians who have honored the memories of the ‘Righteous AnceSTARs’ by ‘Using Their Creative Genius & Exceptional Dedicated Service For The Upliftment & Empowerment of HUE-MANEity.’ W.E. A.LL. B.E. SoulJAHs Award honorees included Mary Mitchell, Karanja Ajanaku, Anthony AMP Elmore, Rev. Dr. Earle Fisher, Dr. Louvisia Conley, James DEKE Pope, Cedric Moore & Justin J. Pearson. Entertainment was provided by gospel rapper Yung Praise.

On April 12, the annual wreath-laying ceremony took place at Memphis National Cemetery. WeAllBe started this tradition on April 12, 2016. Color guard, riderless horse, and 21-gun salute were provided by the Memphis Police Department. Former U.S. Marine Charley Wells masterfully played “Taps.”

Popular and talented Memphis musician Suavo Jones soulfully played both the U.S. national anthem and the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice & Sing,” on his trombone unaccompanied. Dr. Barbara Fitzhugh provided a soul-stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and TN State Rep. Justin Pearson gave a tremendous speech that could have awakened the dead and electrified the living souls gathered and listening within earshot.

Yung Praise rapped and sang his way into the hearts of those willing to receive his testimony. Names of the U.S. Colored Troops and white Union soldiers slaughtered were also read. Patricia Lee did a wonderful job as mistress of ceremonies. People honored with W.E. A.LL. B.E. SoulJAHs Awards at this event included TN State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, Joe Williams (Fort Pillow descendant), Head Fort Pillow Historic State Park Ranger Robby Tidwell, and the late great former TN State Sen. Reginald Tate for ‘Using Their Creative Genius & Exceptional Dedicated Service For The Upliftment & Empowerment of HUE-MANEity.’

On April 13, WeAllBe organized the 160th Anniversary Fort Pillow Massacre program at Fort Pillow Historic State Park. Participants included Fort Pillow descendent Yulandia Burgess, Professor Gene Tinnie, and State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, among others. The names of those who lost their lives were read once again by the collective.

Professor Gene Tinnie was honored with a W.E. A.LL. B.E. SoulJAHs Award for ‘Using His Creative Genius & Exceptional Dedicated Service For The Upliftment & Empowerment of HUE-MANEity.’ A wreath-laying ceremony also took place on the actual battleground where the massacre took place. Reflections were given. Dr. Fitzhugh, who performed “Amazing Grace” earlier, provided a beautiful rendition of the song “Memories” for this sober yet cathartic occasion. A military presentation was performed to conclude the ceremony.

In closing, please remember that words create worlds. With that said, I would like to offer these words of hope from Dr. Callie Herd, WeAllBe vice-president and the visionary behind the Fort Pillow Massacre Project:

“My faith is this: that one day, we, as Black people, will learn our culture, we’ll learn our history, we’ll understand that we should not be afraid of our history, but that we should take pride in it and we’ll be a culture like other cultures that teach it to the young ones.”

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