By Wayne Dowdy
In another letter to Colonel John McLeod Keating, managing editor of the Memphis Daily Appeal during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, your correspondent describes the partial reopening of the city and how Memorial Day was commemorated during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Dear Colonel Keating:
On May 4th Memphis began to relax its Safer at Home order, letting some citizens return to work, eat in restaurants, and visit some public places in small numbers.
The public library for example is open for limited hours and capacity. Library staff are back serving the informational needs of the citizenry as well as continuing to prepare and deliver meals. Automobile traffic has increased, but many public places are still largely empty as Memphians continue to curb their activities for the greater good.
Last Friday Derrick and I went to the Cupboard Restaurant on Union to eat supper. We received a very warm welcome from the staff who were as delighted to see us as we were them. The Cupboard is one of those Memphis places where you are liable to see everyone you know if one just goes often enough. Unsurprisingly, not long after we arrived, a co-worker that I haven’t seen in a while was seated near us. When I finished my chicken and dressing things felt more normal than they had since early March.
However, that feeling did not last long.
Friday evening marked the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, which has become not only a commemoration of our nation’s fallen soldiers, but also the beginning of the summer vacation season. Normally it is a festive time, where American flags wave in the warm breeze, parks and other outdoor places are jammed with people, and cemeteries hold services attended by thousands.
This year however, there is little to celebrate and much to commemorate. 100,000 citizens have now died of Covid-19. Not even during the Civil War did we suffer such a high casualty rate over a brief period of time. For example, between February and May 1862 8,579 Americans lost their lives in battle. All Memorial Day events were canceled but still citizens visited both National Cemetery and The West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery to pay their respects and visit the graves of loved ones.
The National Cemetery off Jackson Avenue that was opened during your time still honors those who devoted themselves to our nation. On Monday I took Derrick there so we too could honor their memory. As we walked that sacred space I thought not only of those who wore our nation’s uniform but those Americans who today have given a measure of devotion equal to those resting in that hallowed field. Every citizen during this pandemic who has comforted and healed the sick, fed the hungry, drove our fellow citizens to their destinations, virtually educated our children, cleaned our streets, kept us safe, and maintained our vital supply chain deserves to be commemorated as much as those whose devotion was beyond measure.
As we left the cemetery, I felt a great deal of pride in Derrick and all others who answered their country’s call during this, and every other, horrible time.
So, Colonel, that’s the way Memphis is in the fifth month of the Year of Our Lord 2020.
Your Faithful Servant
G. Wayne Dowdy