Remembering Rose: Celebration brought old friends together
Editor’s note: In memory of longtime reporter Rose Post, who died last October, the Post is reprinting some of her columns. This one first appeared in the paper on May 29, 2002.
It happened the way it so often happens. The picture just popped up.
William Holmes was looking for his discharge papers, and there it was. And once he had it in his hands …
Well, he couldn’t stop looking at it. He was a young man in uniform, standing at attention in memory of John F. Kennedy on a parade float rolling uphill on North Main Street headed toward the Square.
But suddenly he noticed all the stores his float is passing are gone.
In that picture, he’s passing Casper’s Shoes. Vacant now. Queen’s Gift Shop was there for years, but it’s moved to the old Underwood’s building. And Saleeby’s? It’s now Sugarfoot and Co. Fisher-Thompson Hardware is now Frank’s Pawn Shop. And that old Piedmont Restaurant sign? Gone. Bates Hotel is a parking lot, and that tall building that says Norman’s, if your eyes are good enough to see it, is becoming A & H Investments.
Would the Post want that picture, he asked, for Saturday’s Yesterday series?
But it had a bigger story to tell, and the bigger story was on his mind.
“Look at that crowd!” he says, plopping the picture down on my desk and pointing to the crowd lined up as far as the camera can see. “You can’t see a white face anywhere in that crowd!”
But his voice holds no rancor.
He knows why there are no white people and why the crowd of black people is big. He’s on a float in the 30th of May Parade, sometimes called the Colored People’s Day parade. Never heard of either of them? That’s because white people in the South ignored Memorial Day — or tried to — because it originally honored military men from the North who died in the Civil War. Now it honors all those who died in any war while serving the United States.
But the Civil War ended slavery. How could African Americans ignore that?
And the Post has clippings in its file from April 30, 1866, one year after the Civil War ended, when a Post predecessor, the Carolina Watchman, reported that the Colored People’s Benevolent Society had asked Luke Blackmer to deliver an address at Shaver’s Grove, near the Salisbury Male Academy.
“They will convene at Town Hall and march thence to the grove,” the paper said. “The public generally is invited to attend.”
That was a parade, the first.
“They also propose to hold an elegant fair on that evening at Gowan Hill, the proceeds to be used for the relief of the sick and suffering colored people in and about this place. Admission 25 cents.”
William didn’t know much about that.
But 63 years have not dimmed his memories of African Americans coming from near and far, from East Spencer to New York, for the parade that started a week of fun.
It always began on North Church Street near Soldiers’ Memorial AME Zion Church, went to Main, where it passed the old courthouse and crossed the Square, continuing to Monroe Street and aimed for Old Wilkesboro Road. They could smell the excitement long before they got there — popcorn, fish, barbecue, homemade ice cream, mouth-watering cakes; any kind of treat anybody wanted competed for attention with balloons, picture-taking booths, children in long lines for the rides from sunrise to sunset.
Members of the Negro Civic League (possibly a descendant of that Colored People’s Benevolent Society) and the J.C. Price American Legion Post planned it, ran the rides, directed parking and controlled traffic.
“And people came from Winston-Salem, High Point, Greensboro, Ohio, everywhere. It was a big to-do, a one-time-a-year visiting thing,” William says, “but first you came uptown for the parade. That’s where you saw people that you hadn’t seen in years.”
It had to last a week.
Everybody couldn’t go at one time. The place wouldn’t have held them, he says. Cars were stacked on both sides of the road.
And all that, he sighs, makes for “happy memories.”
But not for the white folks, he says.
“White people didn’t admit it was a holiday. It wasn’t listed on the calendar as a holiday, but everybody in Salisbury knew it was coming, even though it wasn’t scheduled. Schools were scheduled, so the black schools were about empty. I’m sure some children came, and the teachers did because they wanted to get paid.”
He worked at Winn-Dixie, and sometimes he asked if he’d get the day off.
“Some bosses you could say that to, and sometimes you had to just not go to work. Sometimes I got it off. Sometimes I didn’t. I don’t know what excuses other people gave, that they were sick or whatever. You heard people down through the years saying, ‘They aren’t going to let me off.’ But everybody got off in their own way.”
Some white employers would say they knew there was no point in telling them to come to work “because they ain’t going to do nothing anyway,” he says.
By the ‘30s, the Post recognized it as a big event.
In ‘37 a headline declared, “Negroes Flock here Monday.” The parade route included a stop at Livingstone College to hear speeches from professors.
In ‘39 the Post said “Thousands See Annual May 30th Parade” and ran two pictures. And the story concluded that the celebration was a holiday for Negroes.
“Concerns employing Negro help,” the story said, “were practically at a stand still and servants, cooks and others, in homes and other places, were given the day off.”
The Post file has nothing else about it until 1998. William’s picture, which he thinks was made by a Post photographer in 1963, never ran in the paper. He went into the military in 1956 and came out in ‘62 — and the picture was with his discharge papers.
That didn’t surprise him. Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, and he believes that float was probably in the parade the next May. It won the Best Float contest.
“I designed it,” he says. Members of the Culture Club helped him build it to represent Kennedy’s grave, with the eternal flame on one side and his picture on the other. Around the side of the float were Kennedy’s unforgettable words:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
“And,” he says, “we won $250 for the best float.”
But things were still changing, including the name.
By then, he says, “We were calling Memorial Day the black holiday and the Fourth of July the white holiday.”
And eventually it stopped altogether. That date wasn’t recorded.
“We don’t know what stopped it,” he says. “When we had it, we had it on the 30th of May regardless of when it fell.”
And William, head custodian at Overton Elementary School, thinks the 30th of May parade stopped when the country started observing the holiday on the Monday closest to the 30th.
“That Monday thing blew it out of the water,” he says, but they still put the rides up and sell fish and sodas and cake, the old timey cake, and it gets a big crowd still.
“But the crowd changes, too. People move out and people die. You don’t have the same people coming to visit every year. Who’s going to come to Salisbury for Memorial Day now when you can go on a cruise? Even if you call it the 30th of May Parade?”
So it was gone until three years ago when Deborah Turnbell tried to revive the Colored People’s Day Parade. She didn’t expect it to be the biggest in Salisbury history, and she didn’t cry when some suggested it might have been the smallest. She knew it was the friendliest.
And she organized the parade again Monday, down Monroe Street to the J.C. Price Post.
People, she and William believe, ought to know their heritage.
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