by Callie Herd
I never knew that by my son attending the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer” would result in producing a historical marker dedication in honor of the African-American soldiers and civilians that fought and died during the Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864.
When my son came back from the ceremony, he told me about the 99th anniversary of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) national conference being held in Memphis and that they were accepting volunteers to be on the steering committee for the event. I became part of the committee.
During the conference, I met professor Gene Tinnie. Later, while attending the 100th anniversary of ASALH in Atlanta, I had a brief conversation with him regarding the experience he and others had when they toured the Fort Pillow National Museum. They wanted to submit their concerns to the museum because they felt that the museum did not have a balance of representation for the African American and Union soldiers.
I brought professor Tinnie’s concerns to our local ASALH branch in Memphis. President Clarence Christian created a trekking event that allowed us to tour the Fort Pillow Museum and site of the Fort Pillow battle.
This experience was unique in that we got a chance to view the museum with unbiased eyes to see if we, too, agreed with professor Tinnie’s assessment and to decide on a plan of action to submit our concern to the museum.
After we finished our tour of the site, I lost my phone, but this was significant in that it allowed me to get to know the receptionist (she later provided me with the list of the soldiers both US Colored Troops and Union soldiers). I soon found out that the soldiers were buried in Memphis National Cemetery.
I decided to organize a wreath laying ceremony in honor of the African-American soldiers and civilians. I created a joint effort (involving) the Memphis Branch of ASALH and The WeAllBe Group Inc. I did not find out until December, 2016 from Lyndon Comstock that the remains of the soldiers were located in Section B of the cemetery. We then had a national wreath laying ceremony on April 12, 2017 and recently held one on April 12, 2018.
I decided in 2016 that I would help to create a national wreath laying ceremony in honor of the soldiers because I wanted people to forever remember the soldiers and civilians of the Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864. One of the ways to help in the remembrance was to create a historical marker at the location where many of the soldiers were buried.
The marker is a way for the world to say, “Thank you for loving us and helping to allow slaves to obtain their freedom.” This marker is not just for a particular group or individual, but rather it represents all who give thanks to these individuals.
I am very thankful for getting to meet and know Joe Williams, great-grandson of Pvt. Peter Williams, who fought during the Fort Pillow Massacre. Joe did not know about Pvt. Peter Williams until July 25, 2000, but he made a vow to himself that he would make sure that no one forgot the African-American soldiers and civilians of the Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864.
We did not know each other until 2016 after the first wreath laying ceremony. Joe was in attendance at both the 2017 and 2018 ceremonies. He is also one of our major financial sponsors for the historical marker. As a tribute to remembering the soldiers, we will be placing an image of Pvt. Peter Williams. He is the only soldier on record to have an actual photo.