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
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
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
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 –
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.