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Category:  General History
Published:  April, 2007

May Day, May Day, May Day!

By Al Owens
There are times when you’d do just about anything to protect the empire. I did that once. I was in Park Elementary School and we grade-schoolers had been chosen to march, as Trojan warriors, in the annual May Day parade. It is an honor I will never forget. (I won’t bore you with the details. My memory isn’t that good) All I know is we dawned a lot of stuff made out of paper and tissue, assembled up there behind the Connellsville Street school, and walked downtown with our heads held high.

I was part of a local ritual that started back in the early 1930’s – but all I knew that day was that I had one task in mind - to make eye contact with my parents while marching. A challenge we must have all undertaken at one time or another.

Later, I’d read a front page story in The Morning Herald about how Uniontown was the first town to ever turn May Day into Americanism Day. I didn’t, however, know it was a lot of other things before that.

The phrase May Day is a nice one, when you think about it. Two little words that rhyme and make you feel good when you say them. But if you repeat the phrase thusly: May Day, May Day, May Day it means something completely different. It’s the international signal for distress. It stems from the French word m’aider, or the French word for “to help me”. (Just thought you’d like to know)

There’s even a well known rock band from Tallahassee, Florida named MayDay Parade.

The term May Day as an actual day of celebration can be traced back to the 1800’s. I’ve found references to it as a day of worker’s rights in the 1880’s. (some were held as a call for an 8 hour workdays) Before that it was simply a celebration of spring, complete with May poles, dancing and rejoicing.

The day grew rapidly across the United States with yearly workers strikes on that day in Milwaukee, Louisville, Boston, and in Troy, New York. In fact, there was a coal strike on May Day (May 1st) in Connellsville of 1891.

It is said that the day became truly international around in the same year. Of course the Russians took the day to honor not only workers, but communism itself. And by 1918, Russians took to the streets to honor the Bolshevik Revolution.

Ah, but in Uniontown, the LaFayette Post #51 of the American Legion and Uniontown Post #47 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, had another idea for May 1st, 1933. They decided to celebrate May 1st as Americanism Day. It was chance to pay tribute to the American way of life.

The May 2nd, 1934 Morning Herald (the day following the second year of the event): “10,000 March in Americanism Parade; Every Section of County Represented in Monster Demonstration of Loyalty”. That’s what residents awakened to read the day following the May Day Parade. Those readers probably had no idea that tradition would survive for the better part of a century.

They lined the streets and held a long list of activities that day, despite a telephone threat that caused Legion and V.F.W. members to be stationed along the parade route in plain clothes for safety.

And that event went off without a hitch!

Meanwhile, Chicago in the late 1930’s they held their own May Day Parade. Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis was chosen to lead the Americanism Day Parade in 1940, just on the strength of his victory over the symbol of Nazi supremacy – Max Schemeling.

Meanwhile, as Americanism Day became popular, so did the concept of Loyalty Day. It too, was a reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed Loyalty Day a national observance that would be celebrated on the same day as Americanism Day. A president of the United States had been moved to give national prominence to an idea that (at least in part) got its roots on Main Street in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Ironically, that VFW building was within a few feet of the birthplace of the man who’d given international prominence to Uniontown, Pennsylvania – George C. Marshall)

But somehow, Uniontown has stuck with the original idea of May Day and Americanism Day, while other cities around the country and the world, have merely taken the phrase to use it for other purposes.

On May 1st, 1934, for instance, while Uniontown celebrated its loyalty to America, in Pittsburgh there were two disparate May Day Celebrations. At the Oakland Community Playground they put up May poles and engaged in traditional children’s games. While on the North Side, there were between 3 and 5 thousand protesters who marched in the interest of Communism.
On that same day in Germany, Adolf Hitler interrupted the usual communist May Day celebration with his message that Germany wasn’t guilty of starting World War I. That it was merely a victim. While the events in Uniontown, and Pittsburgh were of note – Hitler had spoken to an assembled crowd of 2 million people that day.

When Uniontown celebrates May Day this year, the 74th year the event will be held, there will be celebrations in Dublin, Ireland with its “Global Day for Fair Pay”, Tijuana, Mexico with its workers demonstrations that will protest the devaluation of the peso, and in the Borough of Stonington, Connecticut, there there’ll be a May Day Parade and Bed Race!

I think the oddest May Day Parade (Although not to the people there) is the May Day Parade in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. That event is usually held on the first Sunday of May each year. It’s taken place every year since 1974 and it’s put on by a group called In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. I’d thought those Bed Races in Connecticut were a little off the patriotism mark, but a Puppet and Mask Theatre?

Out in California, at Pacific Palisades, they’re continuing the tradition of the Americanism Parade. This year, they’re holding the 59th annual event. Problem is, it’s being held on July 4th. I guess they didn’t get the memo!

I’ve been fortunate enough to have marched in 5 May Day Parades. I’ve never felt more American than on those days. It’s a day when our entire community gathers to celebrate our rich American history, even though that first time I was dressed as a Roman Soldier.