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Lawmakers honor Black Civil War veterans with memorial unveiling in Ypsilanti

Colin Jackson
Michigan Public Radio Network

YPSILANTI, MI (MPRN)— Some Michigan lawmakers gathered with community members in Ypsilanti Monday afternoon to unveil a monument to the state’s Black Civil War veterans.

The memorial is located at the city’s Highland Cemetery, where many of those soldiers are buried.

That includes Elias Samuel Rouse, whose 54th Massachusetts Regiment fought at the battle of Fort Wagner. The exploits of that unit were enshrined in the 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington.

Founder and Co-Chair of the Washtenaw African American Genealogical Society Cheryl Garnett is a surviving relative of Rouse. She said she’s overwhelmed by the recognition he’s receiving.

“He was actually wounded twice during the Civil War. And the fact that he came back to the United States and had to fight to get a pension. I mean they denied him. I mean—denied it, denied it, denied it almost up until the time he died,” Garnett said.

She attended the ceremony with her longtime friend and, as it turned out after a DNA test, cousin, Omer Jean Winborn.

“It has so much more meaning because I knew about the movie Glory,” Winborn said. “His story is incredible. He survived that battle and then to come home and fight for his pension? It’s a tremendous story.”

Both Winborn and Garnett encourage other Black Americans to learn about their own family history, which can often become blurred because of the legacy of slavery.

State Rep. Ronnie Peterson (D-Ypsilanti) made the case for keeping some forgotten or underappreciated history alive while leading Monday’s ceremony. He said it’s important to reflect on the nation’s history.

“And I think it’s wonderful that a community and of course throughout the state people came here today to share in the life of those who sacrificed their lives when they were barely free by just a piece of paper. Did not enjoy all the freedom and all the liberty that many of us enjoy today but it certainly is meaningful,” Peterson said.

Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist also delivered a speech to mark the occasion. He said it was important for him to attend.

“Ypsilanti is, has been a center of military service and the proportion of Black soldiers that served from Ypsilanti in the Civil War is really extraordinary, so to have an additional recognition of that here on Juneteenth is really special,” Gilchrist said.

This is the first year Michigan recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday. It became a federal holiday in 2021.