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Black Citizens Celebrate Battle of Fort Wagner

“The forty-ninth anniversary of the battle of Fort Wagner will be celebrated by the colored citizens tomorrow.” 

This was the announcement in The Auburn (New York) Citizen on July 17, 1912, although the newspaper did not have to remind many readers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s gallant charge on the Confederate fort near Charleston in 1863. After all, Harriet Tubman—who nursed wounded soldiers there—was a leading resident in the small city in central New York. In fact, her Home for the Aged was dedicated just four years earlier. In addition, veterans of the 54th lived in the city.

Auburn was the site of numerous events that commemorated themes from the War Between the States due to a vibrant, active African American community.

In 1909, they observed the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. One year later, they assembled at the A.M.E. Zion Church to honor the memory of John Brown. Most recently, they celebrated in 1911 the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Black citizens of Auburn were well-skilled in holding commemorations in recognition of pertinent Civil War era people and events.

Yet there is no record of a planning committee which organized the day’s program. However, the program began with a luncheon for the veterans and guests at the Tubman Home, although she did not attend. The local black veterans were Edward Watkins, Perry Williams, John Ware (on occasion spelled Waire), and Thomas Parker. A prominent guest included “Major” Alexander H. Johnson who was a drummer in the 54th. On July 17, The Auburn Semi-Weekly Journal briefly critiqued this opening event, simply noting that the attendees “listened to a number of speeches and reminiscences.” There was no shortage of reporting on the evening’s exercises at the A.M.E. Zion Church where a patriotic and musical program would occur.

One of the opening speeches was delivered by Rev. C. A. Smith, a member of the 54th, who discussed its Commander, Colonel Robert Shaw. Auburn’s Democrat Argus reported the next day that later Smith joined a local chorus in singing, “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground,” whose lyrics originally were inspired by the regiment’s attack on Fort Wagner. One of the two representatives of the local G.A.R.—which was segregated—made brief remarks but there were no speeches by local elected officials. In addition, two women delivered recitations. The program concluded with a drumming exhibition by Johnson, which prompted the Argus to declare that “he had not forgotten how to handle the sticks.”

On July 18 the following year, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Wagner was observed in cities and towns across the nation. The black citizens of Auburn, however, expertly organized and presented their own extensive, patriotic observance in 1912.

This article was originally published on 10/26/16 on NewYorkHistoryReview.com.

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