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Remembrance at Baltimore's Mount Auburn Cemetery

Group of marchers gathers to honor African-American soldiers

By John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

7:24 PM EDT, May 26, 2013

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Dressed in the traditional garb of a Civil War Union soldier, Vince Vaise led the two dozen marchers through Mount Auburn, Baltimore's oldest African-American cemetery.

Sword drawn, and a stoic look upon his face, Vaise and his followers snaked through the overgrown grass Sunday before stopping at a small white gravestone, which he later explained belonged to Peter Purviance, the city's first freed slave to join the Union army.

On this eve of Memorial Day, Vaise and the small group spent the afternoon honoring African-American veterans from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

"It is not important how many people are here, it is important that you are remembering it today," said Vaise, the chief of interpretation for Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, who has participated in the event since its inception six years ago. "These people are not truly dead. They are in our hearts and minds today."

Vaise, a spirited, charismatic speaker who talked with the cadence of a Southern Baptist preacher, spoke about the contributions of African-American soldiers.

"I hope to raise people's awareness about the contributions of these individuals," he said to the group that consisted of volunteers from Fort McHenry and musicians, including members of the Fort McHenry Guard Fife and Drum Corps and a group of drummers from Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore.

Elsewhere, Stephanie Smith and Rosemary Koontz explained to onlookers about the origins of their clothes. Smith wore white gloves and a patterned blue day dress with a massive petticoat. Koontz wore a black jacket, black lace gloves, black and white bonnet and enhanced gray skirt similar to Smith's. The two are volunteers from Fort McHenry.

"We're wearing seven layers," Smith said to the amazement of two spectators. "The underskirt, bodice, hoop … it's the traditional garb from the Civil War era."

Nicole Yep-Crawford of Bel Air watched with pride as her husband, Army Lt. Col. Jack Crawford, spoke with organizers after carrying a flag during the march. Their two sons, Dimitri, 17, and Gabriel, 9, attended as well.

"We came out trying to educate our kids about the importance of African-American history," Yep-Crawford said. "I think it's great. We're originally from California, so you don't see segregated cemeteries. It's a learning experience for the kids."

Dimitri, who plans to attend the Naval Academy, said he came out to pay respect to the "people who fought" before him.

"I'm just taking it all in," he said as he surveyed the rows of graves.

Younger brother Gabriel immediately piped in: "It meant greatness," he said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com