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It has been 150 years since black soldiers who served in the Civil War began returning home from their service in the South. More than 175,000 members of the United States Colored Infantry (USCI) fought and died to hold the nation together and free blacks from slavery.

The graves of those brave soldiers, such as the one at Union Cemetery in Hollidaysburg in Blair County, are sometimes marked with “U.S.C.I” and serve as a reminder of the service and high cost of freedom paid by those fighters.

February is Black History Month and we would like to recognize the service of all black Americans in the United States military during all conflicts, past and present.

This is particularly vital since black Americans have dealt with immense struggles for equality in a country that hasn’t always served them with as much honor as they served it.

A recent Associated Press article, "Black Civil War veterans honored only in Pennsylvania," looks at how the Blair County men who fought for freedom risked their lives “at the hands of an enemy that didn’t recognize their freedom. Black soldiers captured by the Confederacy risked punishment and enslavement; many were executed on the spot."

Of all the Northern states, none contributed more men to the so-called U.S. Colored Troops than Pennsylvania, and because Blair County had hosted secret stops on the Underground Railroad before the war, it provided a “fertile recruiting ground,” according to the piece.

It goes on to quote a regimental laundress from Georgia, Susie King Taylor, who expressed black troops’ victory in this way:

"In 1861 the Southern papers were full of advertisements for 'slaves,' but now, despite all the hindrances and 'race problems,' my people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded," Taylor wrote.

Many such hindrances and race problems continue to exist today and have evolved from a legacy of local, state and national systemic issues. Still, the hope with which those soldiers fought should not have been in vain. And if we do not begin to openly talk about this legacy and how it can be used as a cautionary tale, we will continue to experience dangerous racial tension and strong divisions across the United States.

In May 1865, black soldiers were not included in the Army’s victorious march through D.C., but they marched through Harrisburg “while prominent state officials watched admiringly,” the article states. “Pennsylvania was the only state to honor its black troops.”

The people of this state should be proud of this historic fact and should use it as the bar for how we face racial disparity and injustice that remains today. It is a strong reminder that we must continue to recognize strength and sacrifice without regard to race.

However, it is not a call for a color-blind approach. It is a call to recognize the importance of diversity, coupled with equal respect for the sacrifices of all who have fought for those vital freedoms.

The Associated Press contributed to this editorial. 

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