Ypsilanti

New memorial in Ypsilanti's Highland Cemetery honors Black Civil War veterans

The memorial honors nearly 40 Black Civil War casualties or veterans who are likely buried in Ypsilanti’s historic Highland Cemetery.
Ypsilanti's Highland Cemetery, 943 N. River St., is now home to a monument honoring local African-American soldiers whose service in the Civil War was overlooked until recently.

The memorial was unveiled in a ceremony on Monday, June 20, with about 150 people in attendance. State Rep. Ronnie Peterson was instrumental in securing funding from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs for the memorial, while Ypsi-based historian Matthew Siegfried contributed research about Civil War casualties and veterans. Ypsilanti-based sculptor and retired Eastern Michigan University (EMU) professor John Pappas designed the memorial.

Additional support was provided by a long list of local veterans groups, including Buffalo Soldiers Detroit. The Palm Leaf Club of Ypsilanti, an African-American women’s organization, has committed to long-term maintenance of the memorial.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (at right, in suit) helps unveil the monument.
Barry LaRue, Ypsi resident and secretary for the Highland Cemetery Association's board of directors, says he and the board are "proud to memorialize [the soldiers'] service along with all veterans who have served our country in its time of need."

There are probably nearly 40 Black Civil War casualties or veterans buried in Ypsilanti’s historic Highland Cemetery. The cemetery records 19 marked gravesites of Black Civil War soldiers. Another 19 are believed to be buried on or near Highland's grounds, but records and headstones are missing or incomplete for some of those honored by the memorial.
Attendees watch the unveiling ceremony for the monument.
"Highland Cemetery is pleased to have a veterans' memorial to honor those African-American soldiers who fought to end the scourge of slavery," LaRue says. " Starting with the Jim Crow era in the 19th century and spanning much of the 20th, the participation of these men was largely ignored."

"Barely free"

Peterson says he attends an annual Memorial Day service every year, and several veterans have pointed out to him that Black Civil War soldiers were buried at Highland Cemetery. Military tombstones in the veteran section of the cemetery indicate the burial of "colored troops," as they were referred to at that time, but the vets who spoke to Peterson didn't feel that was enough.
State Rep. Ronnie Peterson speaks at the monument unveiling.
"They needed more recognition. They went into battle when they were barely free and fought for this country," Peterson says. "I'm a civil rights [movement-era] kid, and I can't even picture that. They can go and fight but can't eat at a restaurant counter or stay in hotels."

Black men began serving in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) directly after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Nationwide, USCT soldiers made up 10% of all Union soldiers by the end of the war. Siegfried's research found that Ypsilanti's African-American population was especially eager to serve, with as many as 75% of all Black men of eligible age and health status signing up to serve in the Civil War.

Contemplating a choice

Peterson suggested commissioning Pappas to design the memorial, in part because the sculptor has already created historical markers across southeast Michigan. Pappas' works can be found on sites ranging from the EMU campus to the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan headquarters in Detroit. Peterson says he also liked that Pappas is "committed to social justice."
Monument sculptor John Pappas.
Pappas says he looked up historical photos and researched the USCT after taking the commission for the memorial. He says learning how those returning soldiers were often treated brought tears to his eyes.

"It just broke my heart. I could not believe these guys would go home and get lynched. That didn't make any sense to me at all," Pappas says.

The piece went through several iterations, but the final design shows three soldiers, inspired by historic photos of the time, at the top of the piece with three eagles of war underneath. Pappas says he avoided images of weaponry, as he felt they weren't central to the monument's message.

"I figured ... I was going to take a much more contemplative look," he says. "I wasn't going to show battles and fighting. Instead, I was going to focus on this whole idea of these men deciding, 'What am I going to do with my life?'" 
Sculptor John Pappas speaks at the monument unveiling.
Pappas tried to imagine what the looks on the soldiers' faces would be as they made that important life-changing decision. 

"Are they questioning? Are they reflective? What's the story?" he says.

At the same time Pappas was learning the sad history of the USCT, he was mourning the death of his wife. He says contemplation of both the troops' history, and his own personal story of life and death, were heavy on his mind the last few months.

"One [story] was killing me and the other was trying to open my eyes," he says. 

Pappas says it was "touching and meaningful" to work on the memorial.

"To show three men in what may have been an intellectual struggle, but at that same time, agony – that stayed with me," Pappas says. 
The new monument in Highland Cemetery honoring Black Civil War veterans who are buried in the cemetery.
Peterson says the story behind the USCT moved him greatly as well.

"That's why I wanted to make sure there was a marker here to identify them as an example of those who served," he says.

More information about Highland Cemetery is available here. Additional information about Ypsilanti's colored troops and other local history is available through Siegfried's Facebook page

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.