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Wampanoag Thanksgivings

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As I approach Thanksgiving I am thinking about the Wampanoag heritage of Aquidneck Island. I have just finished reading Mayflower by Philbrick for a Portsmouth Historical Society book club, so I guess that has me thinking about the roots of our Thanksgiving feast. Often our focus is on the Pilgrims, but maybe we forget about the Native American traditions of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of a harvest celebration. Wampanoag culture celebrated at least five thanksgivings – some believe there was one for each full moon. I came across the celebrations when I was a librarian at Elmhurst School. There were beautiful picture books about “Strawberry Thanksgiving” and the origins of the Cranberry Thanksgiving. Strawberry Thanksgiving is a summer celebration when the first berry ripens. Green Bean and Green Corn Harvest come in mid summer. Cranberry Thanksgiving celebrates the ripening of the last wild berry. Some Wampanoag traditions list a maple syrup harvest celebration in the late winter/early spring. There was definitely a Thanksgiving celebration when the last crops were harvested and that would include singing, dancing and sharing food.

Giving thanks daily was part of Wampanoag culture and it should be part of our life, too. Giving thanks helps us to concentrate on our blessings even in days of struggle.

Remembering Our Veterans: Major General James Parker – Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor

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Major General James Parker retired to Greenvale Farm in Portsmouth after a forty-two year career in the military. His service record is extraordinary.

West Point Graduate 1876

Indian Territory campaigns 1876-7

Mexican Border disturbances in Texas 1878-79

Campaign in Colorado 1879-80

Geronimo Apache campaign in Arizona 1885-6

Spanish American War and Philippines Insurrection 1898-1901 – He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for distinguished gallantry in the Philippines.

Cuban Army of Pacification 1906-9

Command of troops in Brownsville Texas 1916

World War I active duty in France 1917 – Armentieres and St. Quentin and Chemen des Dames.

General Parker retired in February 1918 and he and his wife Charlotte took a real interest in Greenvale Farm off of Wapping Road. The farm had been in Mrs. Parker’s family and had been neglected. The Parkers resolved to make Greenvale their home and restore the property as a working farm. They began to work on the stick style Barstow house to make it livable and bright for the family. They hired a farmer and re-established a working farm with fields, chickens, pigs, geese, turkeys and a dairy herd.

James Parker’s two sons were also military men – James and Cortlandt Parker. Cortlandt also retired to Greenvale Farm. Greenvale is still in the hands of his family. The land is being preserved as a successful vineyard today under the guidance of Nancy Parker Wilson.

In 1934 when Major General James Parker died, he was buried with full military honors at St. Mary’s Churchyard.

Remembering our Veterans: Lt. Raymond Ayler Serves in a Black Unit during WWI

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“Negroes Selected for Service Entertained by Club” read a Newport Mercury headline on November 2, 1917. The article calls them “selected for service” but we might use the term “drafted.” As the United States entered World War I, the standing army didn’t have enough soldiers to mount the effort. The Selective Service Act was passed by Congress in May of 1917 to supply the necessary troops. While some Southern politicians were opposed to drafting African Americans, the War Department decided to draft them anyway into segregated units. Among those “selected for service” was Raymond Hazard Ayler of Portsmouth. He was one of the eighteen men celebrated by the Aquidneck Island black community. The men were told that the community would support them by taking care of those they would be leaving at home. According to the Newport Mercury article – “The purpose of the banquet was to show the esteem which the colored men of this city have for their boys, to encourage them and wish them godspeed and assure them that the entire city was behind them.”

Aquidneck Black Men Honored as They Prepared to Serve

Raymond Ayler’s draft registration card gives us some background on the soldier. He is listed as 24 years old, single and a farmer at Freeborn Street in Portsmouth. Raymond grew up on the farm of his father, Edward Ayler. His father and grandfather came to Portsmouth after the Civil War. Before 1870 Quaker Joseph Macomber brought 16 former slaves to Aquidneck Island. The 1870 census shows the Ayler family living on Macomber’s farm at the bottom of Quaker Hill. Gradually the Ayler family was able to purchase their own farmland and became prominent farmers winning awards for their produce.

Raymond’s Draft Card

The Ayler family was very active in the Friends Meeting House community, so Raymond’s military service was surprising. Raymond’s older brother Osceola was granted an exemption as a conscientious objector because of his Quaker faith. The draft registration cards of both Raymond and his brother have the corner’s cut. This was a way to quickly signify black registrants and make sure they were assigned to segregated units. In August of 1917 armed black soldiers fired on Houston police and civilians ( the Houston Riot) and the War Department assigned most black soldiers to labor jobs such as road building or freight handling. Only two black combat units were established – the 92nd Artillery Division and the 93rd Infantry Division.

Raymond Ayler was assigned to the 92nd division of the National Army. He went to Fort Dix in New Jersey for boot camp and then to Fort Upton in Long Island for further training. He became part of the 349th Field Artillery Regiment. The regiment was trained on 75 mm guns and it had a machine gun battalion. The division was transported to Brest, France in July of 1918 to be part of the American Expeditionary Force. Raymond and his unit were moved to St. Nazaire for further training and were affiliated with a French division. They worked with British and French armies in the Meuse Argonne offensive of the American First Army and the allies were able to stop a German offensive. By May of 1919 Lt. Raymond Ayler was discharged and returned home to his father’s farm in Portsmouth.

Lt. Raymond Ayler

As late as 1927 he was active in the Portsmouth Post of the American Legion and he served on the executive committee alongside William H. Vanderbilt. By 1930 Raymond is listed as living in Westchester County, New York. Both Raymond and his brother Osceola lived out their lives as self-employed carpenters in New York State.

Remembering Our Veterans: Mary E. Lopes Clark – World War I

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Mary Lopes was a Portsmouth girl who volunteered for service during World War I. Many Portsmouth women helped with the war effort. As I researched the local suffragists I learned that many women aided the cause with clerical duties or providing hospitality for troops. Mary went further, she enlisted in the military service.

The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 permitted qualified “persons” for service and the Secretary of the Navy began enlisting women as “Yeoman (F). Over 11,000 women answered the call. They served in a variety of jobs: clerical, bookkeeping, inventory control, telephone operators, radio operators, pharmacists, photographers, torpedo assemblers and other positions. The women did not go to boot camp, but they were in uniform. They had some of the same responsibilities and benefits as the men. Like the men they earned about $28 a month. They were treated as veterans after the war.

What do we know about Mary? Her parents were Manuel Lopes and Georgina Lopes. Their farm seemed to be on Middle Road close to School House Lane but there are listings for East Main Road also. In 1918 newspaper clippings show she won the dance contest at the Newport County Fair. The town directory of 1919 lists her as a “Yeowoman” in the United States Navy and living at home.

After the war the women were quickly released from service, but Mary stayed very active in the Portsmouth Post 18 of the American Legion. She was later Post Commander of the Rhode Island Women’s American Legion Post. Mary even returned to service as a nurses’ aide with the American Red Cross during World War II.

Mary married Alfred Clark and went on to live in East Providence until her death. When she died in 1946 she received full military honors.

Remembering our Veterans: Thomas Julian – Beirut Bombing

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On the front grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society is a stone that commemorates Rhode Island Marines who were killed in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983. Since 1984 there has been a ceremony on October 23rd to honor these soldiers who were killed in a terrorist attack. Among those we honor is Lance Corporal Thomas Julian of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Thomas Julian was very familiar with the Portsmouth Historical Society grounds. As a teenager he cut the lawn there.

Thomas Julian was an active teenager in Portsmouth. Newspaper accounts for the time list his awards earned while he was a Boy Scout with Troop 82 at St. Mary’s Church. In 1974 he earned the God and Country Award at that church. He was a 1979 graduate of Portsmouth High School.

In 1982 Thomas went through boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. As a private he was an Intelligence Specialist and was trained at the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic Fleet, Little Creek Virginia. He became a Private First Class when he was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

By 1983 he was stationed in Beirut, Lebanon as part of the Multinational Force in Lebanon and served as a peacekeeper during the Lebanese Civil War. A terrorist organization used truck bombs to target American and French troops at their barracks. It is estimated that the bombs were equivalent to 21,000 pounds of TNT. The death toll was staggering. Americans lost over two hundred and forty troops. The French lost soldiers as well.

As you pass by the Portsmouth Historical Society, remember Thomas and the others whose promising lives were cut so short. Thomas was just twenty-one years old when he died.