BERLIN, Md. -- The glorious and inglorious past meet in this graveyard, where memories lie segregated, parallel lines on either side of a boxwood hedge.
It's the week before Memorial Day, and eight members of Duncan Showell American Legion Post 231 have gathered to decorate the graves of their dead with tiny flags. Shumway Brittingham, one of the post's founding members and a veteran of World War II, doesn't need a list or a map. He knows the names by heart, and he is making sure the younger men in the group don't miss a single veteran's grave at St. Paul Methodist Cemetery.
"All the ones that used to put flags on the graves with Shumway, they're gone," says his wife, Evelyn, as she watches her husband straighten a flag to his satisfaction. "That's why he's got this new group. He wants it done right."
It's the second grave decoration of the day at this sprawling old cemetery, actually two graveyards divided by a line of towering boxwoods.
On the other side of the boxwoods a few hours earlier, members of Boggs Disharoon American Legion Post 123 gathered at Evergreen Cemetery to honor their dead, putting identical flags on veterans' graves with equal care.
"I'm getting old, and I want to make it right for whoever comes after me," said William Lee Simpson. A member of Post 123, he led five other veterans through the cemetery Wednesday afternoon. Like Brittingham, he knows many of the graves by heart and considers his task an honor.
Simpson and the other Boggs Disharoon members are white.
Brittingham and the other Duncan Showell members are black.
This morning, the two posts will gather briefly for a common prayer service at Berlin's war memorial in the middle of town, a public moment of unity for two parallel worlds divided by race and linked by devotion to America's veterans.
"This is about the only thing we do together," says Elroy Brittingham, son of Shumway, a state American Legion official and a member of Post 231.
The separation in Berlin is part of a pattern that lingers "particularly in the small communities where you have tradition adding to everything else," although it has changed in many places in the United States, says Phil Budahn of the American Legion's Washington office. Its roots -- like those of Memorial Day itself -- lie in a divided past.
'So much history'
"When they came back from World War II, the posts got started then," Elroy Brittingham says. Everything was pretty well segregated then. "Now, nobody wants to give up a post because there's so much history there."
Like the graves they decorate, the posts' histories run parallel. Each is named for a pair of local men who died in a world war. Each has a membership that stretches across half a century of U.S. military conflicts -- World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf. And each has older veterans who speak for the dead in words that are direct and eloquent.
"It's an honor to do it," Simpson says of the flag placement. "They've gone to 'Post Everlastin' is how we determine it."
"These are the guys that went," Shumway Brittingham says. "Everybody is a-laying beneath the sod."
Boggs Disharoon is the older of the two posts. It was founded in 1936 by a local resident, Dr. Clifford Schott, and was named for two local men who died in World War I.
Duncan Showell was founded after World War II and was named for two local men who died in that conflict, post historian Gregory Purnell Sr. says.
Story behind a grave
As the Duncan Showell veterans walk among the worn, bleached headstones of St. Paul's, Purnell pauses by a large double headstone where George and Emma Coard are buried. There's a little flag fluttering behind the stone, and there's a story he
wants to tell.
The Coards were black Berlin residents who had promised to give a party for the returning veterans when the war was over. Coard died in 1944, but his widow, known in the community as Miss Emma, delivered on the party promise.
The veterans decided at the party to form a Legion post, and Duncan Showell was born.
Purnell points to the flag behind the Coards' headstone.
"Neither one of them were veterans, but they were so responsible for Duncan Showell, we honor them," he says.
Miss Emma lived on Flower Street in Berlin, he says, and the black Memorial Day parade always paused at her house long enough for the band to play a full song for her.
Miss Emma is dead, and so are many of the men, black and white, who once walked Worcester County's graveyards with heads bent and flags in hand. But those who survive in both posts share a goal: greater respect for veterans and their holidays.
Both are particularly angered that Memorial Day, which is May 30, is now observed on Monday each year. That, they say, is a slight, an indication that the government no longer attaches to the holiday the significance it should.
"The sole purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those who lost their lives," says Virgil Armstrong, commander of Duncan Showell.