Joanna Winston Foley: Thank You for Your Service: Honoring Hidden Heroes | Columnists

Joanna Winston Foley Guest Columnist

‘Thank you for your service.”

We often use these words to express our gratitude to those who serve in the United States military. It’s a simple phrase with a deep meaning.

These five words can also be expressed in a community message that we communicate through shared remembrance rituals. This Memorial Day weekend, many of us will be visiting cemeteries to place American flags on graves. Some will go to public parks to lay wreaths at monuments. Honoring and mourning with neighbors is an age-old custom during this national holiday.

In fact, the actual existence of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park can be seen as a community saying “Thank you for your service” to the soldiers who fought here in the famous battle of March 15, 1781.

Greensboro’s early leaders began commemorating revolutionary troops when the first statue was erected at the battle site in 1887. It honored Colonel Arthur Forbis, who lost his life after bravely fighting with the County Militia of Guilford. Soon the Guilford Battleground Company (led by Judge David Schenck) purchased additional land on the battlefield. Other monuments were erected honoring the American commander, Major General Nathanael Greene, and other officers who led regular troops and militia units. It’s no surprise that Greensboro has become the landmark-loving town it is today.

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The community also said “Thank you for your service” by placing a statue of Mrs. Kerenhappuch Norman Turner in the park. She had traveled from another state on horseback to care for her son who had been badly injured in the battle of 1781. Her new nursing technique not only healed his wounds but was also used to treat the wounds of others.

Over time, those commemorated by monuments in the park have included three signers of the North Carolina Declaration of Independence: Joseph Hewes, William Hooper, and John Penn. Certain military units – cavalry and Maryland forces – that played a leading role in the battle were also honored. In 1917, this site became the first revolutionary battlefield to be designated a national military park. The choices made by early Greensboro leaders to remember the city’s most historic event have continued to foster a spirit of community pride.

But who is not there?

And yet… the next time you walk to the military park at 2332 New Garden Road, look around and ask yourself, “Who is this rich memorial landscape missing?”

You may notice the absence of a significant group of soldiers: African Americans. Among the 29 statues, monuments and plaques, there is no depiction of the many colored soldiers who fought at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. It’s a striking omission in a city whose earliest claim to fame rests on a battle in which black soldiers played a significant role.

Almost all of the current statues and monuments were erected during the early years of the park. At that time, the military importance of black soldiers in the American Revolution was ignored by historians. Today, contemporary scholars are filling these gaps in history. They dig deep into a treasure trove of early pension records, which allow soldiers of all races to describe their military experiences in their own words.

Here are the facts that emerged:

Black and mixed-race soldiers served in the military from the start of the American Revolution, fighting in every major battle and in almost every skirmish.

These colored soldiers enlisted for longer terms than white soldiers.

The American armed forces were more racially integrated during the colonial period than they would be until the Korean War in the modern era.

In North Carolina, many colored soldiers served in the state militia. Here, at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, at least 14 of the state’s black militiamen took part. Even more African American soldiers fought here from the First Virginia Regiment and the First and Second Maryland Regiments. They were there — but they are not yet visible in the granite and marble. Let’s call them the hidden heroes.

If not now…?

As more accurate stories of the Revolution emerge, when will they be reflected in new monuments in public spaces? It depends. Community groups advocating for more inclusive visual landscapes can make a big difference.

For example, a marker honoring African-American patriots was unveiled on October 7, 2016 at Kings Mountain National Military Park. Exactly 236 years after the famous American victory at this South Carolina site, this new marker was the first to be erected there in six decades. It was born out of the determination of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution to declare, “Thank you for your service.

By 2020, public monuments had become the center of far-reaching and sometimes controversial national conversations across the country. Which versions of history are – or should be – promoted through public art? Historians and activists still debate, “What images should we take away?” “What new images to highlight? In Greensboro, the community conversation clearly favors the new images.

To explore this question, the Greensboro History Museum recently produced a series of four webinars on “Minding our Monuments: Discovering Lost Pieces of Greensboro History in Public Places.” Guest speakers ranged from real-life descendants of a hidden hero (a local woman and her two cousins) to an NC A&T professor from the ROTC program. The first webinar aired on March 15 marked the 241st anniversary of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (see greensborohistory.org, YouTube icon).

The lively local conversations about monuments and memorials will continue – through editorials, talk shows and probably also in bars and churches. Opinions may differ, but most people seem to agree that it’s always good to say, “Thank you for your service.”

Greensboro now has the opportunity to expand its tradition of historical commemoration that began with the purchase of part of the battle site in 1886. Public art can once again demonstrate its power to bring the community together.