Latin words meaning “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country” are inscribed on the base of the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, but that saying is not entirely true, Eric Monday said.
“Those are inspiring words,” Monday, the Martinsville city attorney, told the crowd on Monday at the Memorial Day service at People’s Cemetery in Martinsville. However, “it’s tragic, and it’s sad, because it leaves behind” people who have died in battle.
“It’s sad, but it is necessary” as a part of war to maintain the freedoms of the American people, he said.
People’s Cemetery, off Second Street, was established on June 14, 1918, for African-American residents of Martinsville and Henry County. Estimates on its size have ranged from 50 to 100 acres.
About 430 people are buried in the cemetery, including at least 75 people with military service records who served in conflicts ranging from World War I to Vietnam.
“Those African-American veterans joined all of the band of brothers who have served this country, beginning with the American Revolution,” Monday said — even though the “promise of liberty and freedom” didn’t usually count for them.
Monday listed wars throughout American history, all of which were fought by African-American soldiers. The latest was the current war against terror, “with 8,000 dead and counting.”
Monday talked about the importance of honoring veterans on Memorial Day.
“A great nation requires those who are willing to lay down their lives for the nation,” he said. “For the vast majority of Americans, this is not what we do on Memorial Day.”
Most people spend it shopping, cooking out, taking vacations or doing other personal things. “We don’t think a whole lot about the reason for this day off work, and that’s sad because without those sacrifices. … We wouldn’t have the freedom to do that,” Monday said.
“And so that’s who we’re here to honor today, not just the African-Americans but all Americans that have died in the service of their country.”
“It is today we all should remember those who have gone before us” in war to secure the freedom of the country, Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson said.
The service at People’s was the first of three area Memorial Day services in local cemeteries. The others were at Roselawn Burial Park and Carver Memorial Gardens.
Also during the roughly half-hour event, members of the Martinsville Henry County Veterans Honor Guard raised the flag to the top of a pole at the cemetery and gave a three-volley salute to the deceased veterans.
Martinsville is “the only locality in the entire commonwealth that has recognized all of our historical African-American cemeteries,” Monday said. “There is a program that was established by the General Assembly to preserve these cemeteries, and thanks to your city council here, we were able to become the very first.”
At the city council meeting on May 14, Del. Les Adams announced that House Bill 2406, the “legislature added three historical African-American cemeteries in Martinsville to received funds” through the commonwealth’s Department of Historic Resources: People’s, Matthews Cemetery and Smith Street Cemetery.
Intentions were to include Bannister Cemetery as well, but it could not be confirmed if Bannister had old enough graves, Monday said during the city council meeting.
Work has been done over the past few years to improve conditions at People’s Cemetery, largely spearheaded by area resident Lawrence Mitchell.
“For so long, no one even knew that this cemetery existed,” Lt. Col. (Ret.) W.C. Fowlkes said at the Memorial Day service. People talking about it “is what’s put life back into these hallowed grounds.”