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When I’ve thought about the kind of person who could legitimately be described as a hero, my mind creates the image of a larger-than-life man, someone who stands above others as an inspiration and role model. And yet my imagination doesn’t do justice to the ordinary people who are suddenly called to take action at the risk of their very lives and don’t hesitate to step up to the moment.
William Harvey Carney was one of those men:
William Harvey Carney was born as a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, on February 29, 1840. How he made his way to freedom is not certain. According to most accounts, he escaped through the Underground Railroad, and joined his father in Massachusetts.
As a young man, Carney demonstrated valuing his freedom. In March 1863, he joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and due to his admirable actions, was promoted to sergeant. He is known for his heroism on the battlefield, and later earned the Medal of Honor:
When the color guard was killed, Carney retrieved the U.S. flag and marched forward with it, despite serious wounds. When the Union troops were forced to retreat under fire, he struggled back across the battlefield, eventually returning to his own lines and turning over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, saying, ‘Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!’ He received an honorable discharge due to disability from his wounds in June 1864.
Following his discharge, he returned to New Bedford, MA where he first maintained the town’s streetlights and then delivered mail for 32 years. He founded the National Association of Letter Carriers in 1890 as their vice-president.
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My reasons for celebrating Mr. Carney’s story are many, although they may not be obvious. First, when he decided to escape slavery (and if caught, the punishment would likely have been severe, if not life-threatening), he was aided by the Underground Railroad. Today, when people decry slavery, they ignore the many abolitionists who risked their own lives to establish routes and safe houses to assist those escaped slaves. Second, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry actively recruited black men after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation; the Regiment was widely acclaimed for its valor at Fort Wagner, and were the soldiers lauded in the movie, Glory. Third, Carney risked his life to rescue the flag, which clearly was an important and treasured symbol to him (in spite of his life as a slave), as well as to the soldiers who served with him. He refused to relinquish the flag to anyone other than to another member of his regiment. Fourth, he was not only recognized with the Medal of Honor, but had a statue erected to honor him in Wilmington, DE, and had an elementary school in New Bedford named in his honor. Even a song was written for him—“Boys, the Old Flag Never Touched the Ground.”
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No one can argue that slavery was anything other than a blemish on United States history. At the same time, we have honored black Americans and expressed our gratitude for their service to our country and for the contributions that they have made.
To those who would accuse our country of systemic racism when we have come so far; to those who choose to ignore the great black men and women who willingly served their country, have shown their love of this country who have been recognized and appreciated for it–no one, no radical Leftist or Marxist, can take those merits away from any of our citizens who have repeatedly shown their devotion to the United States.
Carney was a mail carrier, not an elite Leftist black college professor, who earned the honors given to him for his patriotism and service; he was your “everyman,” a man who married, raised a family, held a regular job, and demonstrated his commitment to this country. He felt the country was worth honoring, regardless of the difficulties he had lived through.
Thank you, William Harvey Carney, and to the other brave black Americans, for your service.Published in