Who is Barnard Kemter? Veteran's mic muted as he talked of Memorial Day's roots in Black community
Kemter had just started sharing a story about freed Black slaves when he was muted
At first, people thought it was a brief audio malfunction. But not many knew that on the May 31 Memorial Day ceremony in Markillie Cemetery, a veteran's speech had been deliberately cut. During his Memorial Day speech, retired Army Lt Col Barnard Kemter wanted to recognize the role of African-Americans in the formation of Memorial Day.
Kemter had just started sharing a story about freed Black slaves and honoring deceased soldiers shortly after the end of the Civil War. But many in the crowd were kept from listening to his entire message after his microphone was cut off by the ceremony organizer. About two minutes into Barnard Kemter's 11-minute speech, his mic was reportedly turned down. Cindy Suchan, the president of the Hudson American Legion Auxillary was reported saying that the volume was turned down because "it was not relevant to our program for the day" and the "theme of the day was honoring Hudson veterans."
Who is Barnard Kemter?
Retired Army Lt. Col Barnard Kemter is a graduate of Hudson High School. The 77-year-old was the event's keynote speaker. He was referencing historians from Harvard when he said, "Memorial Day was first commemorated by an organized group of freed black slaves less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered."
Excerpts from his speech
The following text was provided by Kemter to Akron Beach Journal.
"Several towns and cities across America claim to have observed their own earlier versions of Memorial Day or 'Decoration Day' as early as 1866. (The earlier name is derived from the fact that decorating graves was and remains a central activity of Memorial Day.) But it wasn’t until a remarkable discovery in a dusty Harvard University archive [in] the late 1990s that historians learned about a Memorial Day commemoration organized by a group of freed black slaves less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.
"In recent years the origins of how and where Decoration Day began has sparked lively debate among historians, with some, including Yale historian David Blight, asserting the holiday is rooted in a moving ceremony held by freed slaves on May 1, 1865, at the tattered remnants of a Confederate prison camp at Charleston’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club – today known as Hampton Park. The ceremony is believed to have included a parade of as many as 10,000 people, including 3,000 Black schoolchildren singing the Union marching song "John Brown’s Body' while carrying armfuls of flowers to decorate the graves.
"More importantly than whether Charleston’s Decoration Day was the first, is the attention Charleston’s Black community paid to the nearly 260 Union troops who died at the site. For two weeks prior to the ceremony, former slaves and Black workmen exhumed the soldiers’ remains from a hastily dug mass grave behind the racetrack’s grandstand and gave each soldier a proper burial. They also constructed a fence to protect the site with an archway at the entrance that read "Martyrs of the Race Course."
"The dead prisoners of war at the racetrack must have seemed especially worthy of honor to the former slaves. Just as the former slaves had, the dead prisoners had suffered imprisonment and mistreatment while held captive by white southerners. Not surprisingly, many white southerners who had supported the Confederacy, including a large swath of white Charlestonians, did not feel compelled to spend a day decorating the graves of their former enemies. It was often the African American southerners who perpetuated the holiday in the years immediately following the Civil War."
He had stated in his speech: "African Americans across the South clearly helped shape the ceremony in its early years. Without African Americans, the ceremonies would have had far fewer in attendance in many areas, thus making the holiday less significant."
Censorship at the event
According to the local reports, just before Kemter went on to explain just how the black community paid tribute to Union troops, his microphone was cut off - something that Kemter caught up on soon - but he kept going and spoke louder. Suchan said it was either her or Jim Garrison, adjutant of American Legion Lee-Bishop Post 464, who turned down the audio. When pressed, she would not say who specifically did it.
Afterward, he noted, he received "numerous compliments" from attendees who told him “it was nice to hear the history.” The censoring did not sit well with the veteran, who was disappointed over what happened. “I find it interesting that [the American Legion] … would take it upon themselves to censor my speech and deny me my First Amendment right to [freedom of] speech,” Kemter said. “… This is not the same country I fought for." "It’s a situation that I think people are a little upset at the censorship," Kemter said.
"I’m sad that it happened, and I’m sorry what I spoke did not agree with some individuals," he said. According to reports, The Ohio American League is planning on investigating and has asked for the officers to resign.
Watch the video of the event here
The City of Hudson condemned the muting of Kemter's microphone in a statement that reads, in part, "The Mayor of Hudson and Hudson City Council are disheartened to learn that the American Legion turned the sound off for a portion of retired Army Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter’s speech during the Legion’s Memorial Day Ceremony. The Legion explained that mentioning the role that people of color played in history of Memorial Day was ‘not relevant to our program for the day.’"
"We condemn the actions taken by the American Legion to censor the comments of Lt. Col. Kemter. The decision disrespected the Lt. Col. who has valiantly served our country and was there to honor veterans in his speech, and it disrespected all Hudson and American veterans nationwide who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the freedoms we value as Americans."
“The people who came to honor the brave men and women who died for our country were deprived of hearing the totality of comments the speaker intended as he honored America’s fallen. Veterans have done everything we have asked of them during their service to this country, and this tarnished what should have been a celebration of their service."
In a statement, the American Legion Department of Ohio confirmed "events culminated in Mr. Kemter’s microphone being shut off by an unknown person," and it’s investigating the incident thoroughly, which pleases Kemter. "I think it’s the right thing for them to do," he said. The president of the Akron Chapter of the NAACP Judi Hill said that they feel the incident at the cemetery was 'insulting' - an attempt to negate history.
"It goes to show you how individuals don't want to accept the way history really was. There were many people who helped build this country," Hill reportedly said. "I hate to say this, but I thank them for showing us who they really are. I thank them for helping everybody in America see that we still have issues that we need to address."