Photo Caption: Children’s shoes left by Canadians in front of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (NT), Canada in response to the mourning and outrage over last month’s discovery of the remains of 215 indigenous children on the grounds of the largest former residential school that was part of the system of state-funded Christian schools. (Photo credit: Canadian Broadcast Corporation North)
By Dora Muhammad, Congregation Engagement Director, Health Equity Program Manager
On May 1, 1865, formerly enslaved Blacks in Charleston, S.C. honored 257 Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They exhumed the bodies, placed them in individual graves, built a 100-yd. fence around them, and erected an archway over the entrance that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Thousands of schoolchildren carrying roses led nearly 10,000 Black people in a procession of mourning. “The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by Black Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Yale historian Dr. David W. Blight wrote.
Three years later, the holiday became official but white Southerners who had reclaimed power after the end of Reconstruction and sought reconciliation turned the observance into a commemoration of the sacrifices by white people on both sides of the Civil War. The origins of Memorial Day emerging from the Black community have been omitted from the holiday’s narrative along the same fault lines that Black people have been marginalized in society.
If there wasn’t an intentional obscuring of the facts of the past, we would not need to be intentional about truth-telling in the present. If there wasn’t an intentional abuse and genocide of people of color while we live, we would not need to be intentional about how people of color are handled after death. A lack of dignity for the dead is an irrefutable marker that there was a lack of respect for that life. If there wasn’t an intentional negligence and attempted obliteration of the ancestral roots of communities of color, we would not need to be intentional about preserving and protecting sacred memories.
Like the moving May 4th May We Gather service, a national Buddhist memorial ceremony for Asian American ancestors in response to anti-Asian violence, which has increased by 150% in the past year. Racial hatred endured by communities of color has been inextricably linked to religious bigotry, an added compound of suspicion that exacerbates existing misperceptions that these communities are looming threats to non-white, Christian demographics. This unwarranted animus historically resulted in Japanese Buddhist priests being the first to be rounded up to be placed in U.S. internment camps during WWII. It is fueling the rise in contemporary attacks on Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Jews.
Century after century, communities of color have watched crimes against their humanity absolved as a cardinal method to uphold white supremacy. No matter how inexcusable the acts of white supremacist violence—like the January 6th insurrection on the U.S. Capitol—efforts to revise history, to shroud a determined lack of accountability, have become more evident with each passing generation. Truth cannot and will not remain buried forever.
And when it is unearthed—like the remains of the 215 indigenous children, some as young as three years old, discovered last month on the grounds of the largest facility used as a residential school in Canada’s assimilation program—governments and faith institutions must confront their role in levying the brutality of racial violence.
Nearly 6,000 indigenous children in Canada, about a third of whom have yet to be named, have been recorded as dying while attending state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s. More than 150,000 children suffered beatings, sexual abuse, malnutrition, and other punitive measures. The Canadian residential school system was patterned after the U.S. system of forced assimilation of indigenous children taken from their families and placed in boarding schools.
This U.S. boarding school program, ran first by Christian missionaries and later also the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was designed by a former Union Captain Richard Henry Pratt based on his standards of treatment applied to prisoners of war held in a Florida prison in the 1870s. The U.S. government and churches have yet to fully document, address or redress the transgressions of its boarding school system, which is only one aspect of its genocide of tribal nations.
Public outrage in Canada over the undocumented deaths of children has revived the search for more unmarked graves, and mirrors the continued search for, and excavation of, mass graves of Black people murdered in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. After 100 years, the hushed complicity to cover up the horrors of two days of white supremacist violence against a booming Black epicenter came to a definitive end this year on May 19th when the three known survivors testified before Congress for the first time.
And yet, despite the international spotlight on Tulsa on May 31st to mark the date of this atrocity, 25 other massacres recorded in Black communities remain widely unknown. Like the Tulsa perpetrators of racial violence, not one has been convicted. This historic impunity of racial violence continues in contemporary forms, such as the stealth move in 45 state legislatures to introduce bills that would shield drivers who ram their vehicles into protesting crowds from either criminal or civil liability.
Between May and October 2020, there have been more than 100 incidents. It has been argued before Congress that white supremacist violence is a domestic act of terrorism and should be classified as such to enable one avenue of legal accountability. While remaining unchecked, it is not unseen or unchallenged.
Sacred memories disturb public silence in the face of racial injustice.
Join VICPP for Sacred Land, Sacred Lives, our second racial equity roundtable that will discuss ending the desecration of African American cemeteries and ensuring the preservation of these ancestral spaces.