They filled every pew and after realizing that no seating space was to be had, each found a small, yet coveted place to stand in the aisles rather than to return home on this late August day. No matter how uncomfortable the accommodations, it was important for each to be present because St. Philip’s A.M.E. Zion Church had opened it doors to celebrate the life of Thomas Stewart on August 26, 1899.
Stewart was a Civil War Veteran who served his country as a private in Company A of the 26th U.S. Colored Infantry. Trained on Riker’s Island, the African American soldiers of the 26th were organized under the command of Colonel William C. Silliman on February 27, 1864. They became a fighting force of black men who struggled for freedom and ultimately became known for their “bravery and steadiness.” Colonel Silliman perished during the war, but Stewart survived, later becoming a trustee of the St. Charles A.M.E Zion Church in Sparkhill, NY and a charter member of the Nyack’s William C. Silliman Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) #172. Thomas Stewart was gone, but the legacy of the organization he helped to build, the Silliman Post, lived on.
After the war, the first Grand Army of the Republic organization was established in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, quickly becoming the preeminent organization for veterans. At the core of the G.A.R. was the belief in fraternity, charity and loyalty. Established in 1880, Nyack’s Silliman post for black former Civil War soldiers, provided local men with opportunities to focus on their distinct history as oppressed people and to speak freely about their lives.
Decoration Day (Memorial Day) became one of the major activities in which the G.A.R. participated. In the bucolic village of Nyack, stores closed by noon as the streets “wore a holiday appearance.” Local onlookers and those from the surrounding towns lined the streets hours before the event in great anticipation of the grand display. Amongst the shrill of brass bands, esteemed community leaders delivered speeches and the post veterans ceremoniously laid flowers upon each of the fallen heroes’ resting places. The Silliman veterans made certain that those laid to rest in the colored cemetery of Mt. Moor received recognition.
The men of the Silliman post struggled in a society that reserved the dirtiest, most menial and lowest paying jobs for them without regard to their sacrifices and contributions. Societal norms dictated that though free, blacks certainly were not equal. The Silliman post was a Reconstruction era institution that allowed a small community of black civil war veterans to join forces in addressing issues impacting their community. Members of the Silliman Post became leaders in local churches, their political organizations and social clubs.
As the years progressed, the Silliman G.A.R. members began to pass away, and the remaining veterans joined their white comrades in Nyack’s Waldron post. The celebrations continued and the Black veterans who endured maintained their commitment to honoring African American servicemen and telling their stories about the struggle for freedom. Undeniably, their lasting legacy is ever-present today, as we celebrate and remember the efforts and sacrifices of the African American men and women who have served our country.