Buried in “Section 4, Lot 2738-B” of Arlington National Cemetery is First Lieutenant William McBryar: Buffalo Soldier, Medal of Honor recipient, and veteran of multiple military campaigns. He was born a slave in the Carolinas just months before the Civil War began, the son of an African-American mother and a white, Scott-Irish father bearing my family name.
William survived the war, and as Reconstruction descended upon the South he headed north to attend college. After a semester he dropped out, and with no other real prospects, joined the U.S. Army in 1887. He served for decades all over the world, and when he was finally forced into retirement because of age and arthritis, William decided to finish what he started. At the youthful age of 73, he returned to school and graduated from Tennessee State Agricultural and Industrial College.
I knew nothing of Lt. William McBryar until recently (as some of my family’s ancestral researchers still refer to the Civil War as that “act of Northern aggression”), but discovering him has been astonishing. Because he was a war hero? Because of his tenacity? Because my middle son, who is days away from joining the military and is an African-American descendent of slaves himself, has found solidarity in this man?
These are all important, yes, but McBryar inspires me most because of how he grew as a person, not just because of what he did. While always proud of his military service, later in life he was sometimes conflicted over what he had been asked to do — especially against people of color.
I have a dissertation that he wrote after he returned to school (thanks to the archives of Tennessee State University, formerly Tennessee A&I). These are the words of a wise elder, not a young warrior: “We have been inoculated with a barbaric spirit which should cause us to tremble for the future of civilization. What is the nature of that human weakness which seeks justice for one’s self but denies it to others? What is it within us which causes us to accept cruelty with complacency? Why is justice glorified for one race but denied to another?
“Justice causes [us] to protect the weak, to provide for the care of children and the aged. Justice in the courts, justice between men, justice among races, as well as the recent ambitious national program of social justice. Justice is the life-line of a nation; injustice, the cancer which slowly eats it away. Allow justice to become stagnant, and the nation will languish and die.”
So, on this Memorial Day weekend, I am remembering a soldier lying in Arlington, born a slave and buried a decorated serviceman. Was he a hero? He wouldn’t call himself that, nor would he say that every battle he ever fought was right. But he would say, with his years of collected wisdom, that it is always right to do what is right.
The future — our future — depends upon it.