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Columbia Missourian

GEORGE KENNEDY: Nearly 150 years later, its time to honor an important part of American history

By George Kennedy
May 31, 2012 | 5:53 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — You probably know that the original name of Columbia was Smithton. The Smith whose name was borrowed by the little group of entrepreneurs who platted the village in 1820 was Thomas A. Smith, my mother’s great-grandfather.

So I was walking back into family as well as community history on Memorial Day when I spent an hour or so revisiting Columbia Cemetery. The General, as his descendants refer to our most distinguished ancestor, isn’t buried there; but those who are make up a roster of predecessors we’ve memorialized on street signs, schools and in the history of the university.

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Just stroll down Switzler Drive, and you’ll see stones engraved with Vandiver and Clinkscales, Wilkes and Shepard, Stewart and Gentry, Hickman and Garth, and, of course, Rollins. Our best-remembered citizen, J.W. “Blind” Boone and his wife, Eugenia, are not far away.

I had a lesser known and less celebrated section of the burial ground in mind, though, so I headed for the southeastern corner. Some of you were probably there with me a little over a year ago for the ceremony setting the stone and honoring the memory of James T. Scott, victim of Columbia’s last lynching in 1923.

On Monday, I wanted to visit some of Mr. Scott’s neighbors, one of whose gravestones I had noticed for the first time last year. That was the marker for Cpl. Joel Williams, Company F, 62 USCI. That abbreviation stands for the 62nd Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, of the Union Army in the Civil War.

After paying my respects to Cpl. Williams, I found a few similarly plain and eroding markers nearby. Four stand in line. They mark the graves of Mathew Mars, Co. F, 62 USCI; R.W. Woods, Co. A, 11 USCI; Peter Hayden, Co. D, 62 USCI; and George Washington, Co. F, 13 USCHA. (The “HA” stands for Heavy Artillery.)

I was alone, so I came to attention and saluted. It seemed the thing to do.

On my way out of the cemetery, I met Tanja Patton, the superintendent. She was busy setting out flags. When I mentioned those Union soldiers, she pointed out that they were in the original “colored” section. Then she showed me a small metal plaque she was going to hang temporarily at the intersection of Todd Drive and Boone Road. Created by the Missouri Department of the Daughters of Union Veterans, it bears the names of 31 veterans of 12 regiments whose graves are scattered through that section.

Neither their stones nor the plaque carry any further information. Ms. Patton said she hopes to do some research, starting with death certificates now available online, when she gets time next winter.

Eleven of the veterans served with the 62nd. That unit’s contribution to Missouri and the nation only began in the Civil War. When the regiment was mustered out in Texas in 1866, its members contributed $5,000 to found the Lincoln Institute, “for the special benefit of the freed African-Americans.” Veterans of the 65th Colored Infantry contributed another $1,400.

Lincoln Institute, of course, is now Lincoln University in Jefferson City, the state’s second land-grant university.

Those 31 Missourians were among 179,000 African Americans who served in the Union Army. Another 19,000 were in the Union Navy. Nearly 40,000 of those soldiers and seamen perished during the war, three-quarters from disease. (Some of this information came from the Lincoln University website. The rest I got from a Google search for United States Colored Troops.)

If you were at the Memorial Day parade downtown, you saw several convertibles carrying survivors of the famous World War II Tuskegee Airmen. You wouldn’t have seen a mention of those Civil War veterans.

We’re celebrating for the next few years the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the unit that became the 62nd Colored Infantry.

It would be a good time to pay tribute to the men who rest in Columbia Cemetery and their brothers in arms.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.