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Town of Friendship Related Articles

Black Veterans Honored in Friendship

Transcribed by Crist Middaugh

Wellsville Daily Reporter, Tuesday, May 4, 1999

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Black Veterans Honored photo 1

Civil War veteran’s descendants, front from left, Eunice Barber, Luci Laventure, Ethelyn Gayton Sherfield, Naomi Solomon and Vayne Bliss show the bronze gave markers unveiled Sunday during ceremonies at the Friendship Church of God in Christ With them, standing in the back are Hank Brinkmann, Friendship Legion Post commander and Mark Voorheis, post historian.

By George Fillgrove

Daily Reporter

Friendship - Four black Allegany County Civil War veterans, some who once kept their military service a secret, were recognized Sunday during formal ceremonies at the Friendship Church of God in Christ.

The four individuals, George E. Bliss, Aaron DeMon Gayton, Winslow Latham, and William Hamilton, are part of a continuing Friendship American Legion Program to document and restore the graves of the community’s earliest veterans.

“We are here to give thangs for the Civil War service of these four African-American soldiers, that we discovered were buried here in Friendship, to increase the awareness of the contributions of African-Americans in all wars from the Revolution on, and to encourage others to research, document, locate and recognize hem in their own communities,” said Post Historian Mark Voorheis, adding that there are a substantial number of descendants from the four men who still live in the community and throughout Western New York.

The ceremony included the posting of the American Flag by the Friendship American Legion Post’s color guard and a dedication of the four men’s new bronze grave markers. Voorhies ordered markers through the post from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We’re here to let the world know that we remember them and we carry them in our hearts,” said Rev. James T. Roberts, himself a World War II Army Veteran of the Pacific Theater.

The four men representing all three U.S. Colored Troop regiments in New York - the 20th, the 26th, and the 31st regiments - are some of 200,000 blacks from across the nation who served their county during the Civil War.

Vayne Bliss, great-grandson of George Bliss, held his great-grandfather’s bronze marker and noted that he never knew about this part of his family’s history. Bliss never even knew where his ancestor was buried and he is not sure why the man’s accomplishments were never passed on.

Voorheis’ research, however, showed that Bliss joined up at Rikers Island, served garrison duty, and was later discharged in New Orleans, La. He died in 1911.

“You know a lot of things were passed down because they (family members) talked about it,” said Bliss, a Korean Conflict veteran of the U.S. Army. “But they never talked about this, or the service connection or the historical importance. This is something they should have been proud of.”

Eunice Barber, William Hamilton’s great-great granddaughter, said she though her ancestor may have hidden his military service, along with much of his other past, because he was ashamed of being a slave. But Sunday’s ceremony helped shed light on how Hamilton came into the money to purchase more than 100 acres of land near Clarksville. Barber suspects the money came from her ancestor’s separation pay.

Hamilton escaped as a slave at the age of 12 and made his way north. He served with the 31st Regiment, attaining the rank of corporal, and survived the Seige of Petersburg. After the war, he came home, married, farmed his land and later became what is believed to be the country’s first black independent oil producer.

Later during the service Sunday, Barber read the 121st Psalm out of the Bible and then told those in attendance, “Today we celebrate these black soldiers who were Civil War veterans. It is good to know these men are remembered after all these years.”

According to Voorheis, the four men were tied to an often forgotten part of local history that included a settlement of black families on what is now Wetherby Hill in the Town of Wirt. As early as 1820 there were records indicating that 17 slaves and 12 free men lived in the community. By 1850, census reports who’d that many of the black residents were landowners, voters and able to read and write.

Even though blacks fought in every American conflict from the Revolutionary War on, the Civil War marked the first use of segregated black units such as the 54th Massachusetts. By 1864, there were 135 infantry, six calvary, 12 heavy artillery, 10 light artillery, 39 engineering regiments and 410 other units.

Sunday’s services included a number of other Legionnaires, man of them fellow blacks, who traveled from Buffalo to particpate.

“This is a historical moment for all of us,” said Robert Ingram, the commander of the Bennett-Wells Post 1780 of Buffalo. “I will carry this back to my post about how these men were honored. Its one of the greatest things I can think of. I hope and I pray that we can always do this. It is a moment of celebration.”

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