A Veteran Tried to Credit Black Americans on Memorial Day. His Mic Got Muted.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter was speaking at an American Legion service in Hudson, Ohio, on Monday when he was intentionally silenced.,
Veteran’s Mic Cut as He Noted Black History of Memorial Day
During Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter’s Memorial Day speech in Hudson, Ohio, his microphone was turned off as he spoke about how freed Black slaves had played an early role honoring fallen soldiers after the Civil War.
Memorial Day was first commemorated by an organized group of Black freed slaves less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered. In recent years, the origins of how and where Decoration Day began has sparked lively debate amongst historians. However, Yale historian David Blight, asserting the holiday is rooted in a moving ceremony was conducted by freed slaves on May 1, 1865, at the tattered remains of Confederate prisoner of war camp. They were carrying armfuls of flowers and went to decorated the graves. Interesting that there would be a tie back to Hudson with that song “John Brown.” Most importantly, whether Charleston’s Decoration Day was the first is attended by Charleston’s Black community … A.j., mic? We’ll continue on; this is why you moved in closer so you can hear this.
A little more than four minutes into Barnard Kemter’s speech at a Memorial Day service organized by the American Legion post in Hudson, Ohio, an unusual thing happened: His microphone was silenced.
Mr. Kemter, 77, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in the Persian Gulf war, had been crediting formerly enslaved Black Americans with being among the first to pay tribute to the nation’s fallen soldiers after the Civil War when his audio cut out on Monday.
Soon after, he said in an interview on Thursday, he learned that he had been intentionally muted by the event’s organizers, who disapproved of his message.
Now, the head of the American Legion of Ohio is seeking the resignation of two of the event’s organizers, and the organization has opened an investigation into the matter.
“Like anyone else, I figured it was a technical difficulty,” said Mr. Kemter, who tapped the microphone to see if it was on and continued his speech to a few hundred people with his unamplified voice.
The two organizers who have been called upon to resign, Cindy Suchan-Rothgery and James Garrison, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
But in an interview this week with The Akron Beacon Journal, Ms. Suchan-Rothgery acknowledged that she or Mr. Garrison — she did not specify — had turned off Mr. Kemter’s microphone for two minutes. She told the newspaper that Mr. Kemter’s narrative “was not relevant to our program for the day” and that the “theme of the day was honoring Hudson veterans.”
The episode swiftly drew international attention to the solemn observance in Hudson, a town of some 22,000 people about 15 miles north of Akron, Ohio, at a time of reckoning in the country over racial injustice.
Until that moment, the service had resembled countless others that take place every Memorial Day. There was the playing of taps, the reading of the names of local armed forces members who died while serving the nation and the placement of wreaths.
The American Legion of Ohio said on Twitter on Thursday that the group’s commander, Roger Friend, had requested the resignations of Ms. Suchan-Rothgery and Mr. Garrison. It also noted that it had opened an investigation.
Mr. Friend said in an email on Thursday night that he would not be commenting further until that investigation was concluded.
In a statement issued on Thursday on Twitter, James W. Oxford, the national commander of the American Legion, saluted Mr. Kemter for his efforts to highlight the “important role played by Black Americans in honoring our fallen heroes.”
“We regret any actions taken that detracts from this important message,” Mr. Oxford said. “Regardless of the investigation’s outcome, the national headquarters is very clear that The American Legion deplores racism and reveres the Constitution.”
Mr. Kemter, who grew up in Hudson and had been invited by the local American Legion post to speak at the event, said he had researched his 11-minute speech and practiced it several times.
As a courtesy to the event’s organizers, he said, he sent a copy of his speech to Ms. Suchan-Rothgery three days before the service. On Sunday, he said, she replied.
“She just said she wanted changes made,” said Mr. Kemter, who lives in Pataskala, Ohio, which is more than two hours from Hudson.
Mr. Kemter said that Ms. Suchan-Rothgery had forgotten to save her notations on the word processing document that he had sent to her, so he just went ahead with his speech on Memorial Day.
“I did not have time to rewrite a speech,” he said.
As he took the microphone, Mr. Kemter mentioned his roots in Hudson and said that Memorial Day was a “day of solemn contemplation over the cost of our freedoms.” He said the observance had been born out of necessity when the nation was faced with the task of burying 600,000 to 800,000 Civil War dead.
“Memorial Day was first commemorated by an organized group of Black freed slaves less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered,” he said on Monday, citing research by David W. Blight, a Yale University history professor.
On May 1, 1865, Mr. Kemter said, a large group of formerly enslaved people organized a tribute to Union soldiers who had died at what had been a Confederate prisoner of war camp in Charleston, S.C.
“The ceremony is believed to have included a parade of as many as 10,000 people, including 3,000 African American schoolchildren singing the Union marching song, ‘John Brown’s Body,'” he said.
That was when Mr. Kemter’s microphone was silenced.
“It’s sad that it had to develop like that,” he said. “My whole intent on the speech was to be informative, educational and to pay tribute to African American contributions to the Memorial Day service and traditions.”