Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work --
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
This poem, titled "Grass," was written by Carl Sandburg, one of the finest poets Illinois has ever produced. Born in 1878 to immigrant Swedes in Galesburg, Sandburg wrote these lines in 1918 while living and working in Chicago as a journalist. It was a time when young men were dying by the hundreds of thousands in the bloody fields of Belgium and France during the First World War. I have always loved the poem for its power and its simplicity. It invokes the place names of some of the greatest human tragedies ever witnessed -- scenes of horror, despair, and slaughter -- and yet ends on a note of undisturbed tranquility. It comforts us to know that nature is indifferent and will, over time, erase all memory of such ugly and horrific struggles. It troubles us to hear the voices of the passengers on the passing train because they are the voices of ignorance. We know that we cannot, must not, distance ourselves from the reality of history, no matter how much we want to.
World War I is receding from memory. Gone are the days when every schoolchild stood and faced east at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to remember the great sacrifices of those who fought and died in the conflict.
Many of those who went "over there" and who now rest there in honored glory were African Americans attached to various "Negro" regiments, including the 8th Illinois (reformed as the 370th in France; 95 men and one officer killed in action). Most were Chicago men, but the 8th included men from all parts of the state. It was an all-black (including officers), all-volunteer outfit, and the 3rd Battalion commander was a Springfield man, Lt. Col. (later a full colonel) Otis B. Duncan, for whom the Veterans of Foreign Wars post at King Drive and Capitol Avenue is named. The Black Devils, as they were called (the French called them Partridges), saw heavy action in the summer and fall of 1918. The regiment was highly decorated for its bravery and returned home to a hero's welcome in Chicago on Feb. 19, 1919. There they marched in a grand parade down Michigan Avenue before throngs of onlookers. I wonder whether Sandburg was among them.
What we most need to remember today, what we must never forget, and what makes the deeds of the 8th Illinois even more heroic, is the social climate that existed at that time for the African-American citizens of this country. According to Kathryn Harris, division manager for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, African Americans were living in a harsh America that judged them solely on the basis of their skin color. She says that not only were the soldiers (many of whom were learned professional men) soldiers in a military sense, but they were also myth-busting foot soldiers in the vanguard of the movement toward social equality for all citizens.
"African Americans were perceived as slackers, as lazy, as unwilling to work and unwilling to fight for this country, which treated them as second-class citizens. The attitude of the time was overwhelmingly racist. It was a racist country. It was overt racism in the South and covert racism in the North. Lynching was common practice, and the Klan was still busy, even in the North. Ida Wells was working strongly to bring the immorality of lynching into the public consciousness. 'Colored Man No Slacker' [pictured] was a way to say publicly, 'I am just as valuable as you. I have just as much to contribute as you do."
The black press was also a strong voice for social change, Harris says. The Chicago Defender, after the return of the Black Devils, published this editorial salute:
"Welcome, Eighth!. . . You left home to make the world a safer place for democracy and your work will have been in vain if it does not make your own land a safer place for you and yours. The country that commands your service in times of war owes you protection of life and property in times of peace, and the nation that cannot furnish its citizens with such a guarantee has no right to demand service in time of
war. . . If you have been fighting for democracy, let it be a real democracy, a democracy in which the blacks can have equal hope, equal opportunities and equal rewards with the whites."
Today, Veterans Day, let's remember the sacrifices of all American veterans everywhere.