June 1, 2009, - 2:19 pm
By Debbie Schlussel
The story of Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor recipient, Cpl. Isaiah Mays, sounds like the stuff of movies. It’s the story of a wrong righted, even if it’s almost a century later. And it illuminates the efforts of a group I’ve promoted on this site previously, the Missing in America Project.
Mays, a freed slave, endured significant injury in the line of duty and struggled to get help while wounded. Still, his treatment in later years did not reflect that heroism.
On Friday, Mays, who died in 1925 and was buried in a makeshift pauper’s grave after spending his last years in a mental hospital, was finally given a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Isaiah Mays Wears His Congressional Medal of honor
Isaiah Mays Burial, Friday, @ Arlington Natl Cemetery
Mays was born a slave in Virginia in 1858 but spent most of his life west of the Mississippi, joining the famed Buffalo Soldiers as the black cavalry and infantry troops fought in the frontier Indian Wars.
In 1889, he was part of a small detachment assigned to protect a U.S. Army pay wagon, which was caught in an ambush by a band of bandits. A gunfight ensued and almost all the soldiers were wounded or killed. Mays was shot in both legs. The bandits made off with $29,000 in gold coins.
Despite his wounds, Mays managed to walk and crawl two miles to a ranch to seek help. He was awarded a Medal of Honor on February 15, 1890. . . .
Mays left the Army in 1893 and many years later applied for a federal pension. But he was denied.
Many sources that I read say the reason given for this denial was, “ineligible,” because Mays was Black. Because he was poor, hobbled from military injury, and had no place to go, he lived the rest of his years alone in a hospital with mental patients. In those days, the indigent and mentally ill shared a hospital.
He was committed to an Arizona state hospital that cared for the mentally ill, tuberculosis patients and the indigent.
When he died in 1925, Mays was buried in the hospital cemetery in a grave marked only with a number.
Reports say Mays was wrapped only in a sheet from the hospital and dumped into a grave.
In 2001, Mays’ missing remains and burial plot were located by hospital officials. Just weeks ago, his remains were dug up. The Missing In America Project–a volunteer organization which seeks to identify and honor the unclaimed remains of American veterans– rode with Mays remains, transporting them on motorcycle from Arizona to Arlington National Cemetery at the groups’ own expense. Friday, Mays was given the hero’s burial he deserved.
Despite the incredible heroism and sad life of this great Black American, I’ll bet if I took a poll, the chasm between the many Black Americans under 30 (and probably over 30) who are familiar with rappers like Lil’ Wayne and the scant few who ever heard of Isaiah Mays would be vast. I’m sure the gap would be just as wide amongst White Americans of the same age group. As I always say, this is about the problems of a culture–which celebrates, elevates, and emulates garbage, not a race–which has many historic American heroes, like Mays, of whom it can and should be very proud.
Cpl. Isaiah Mays, Rest In Peace.
Read more about Isaiah Mays.