A field of U.S. flags on tombstones.
Image source: Justin Casey on Unsplash

The Black Origins of Memorial Day

May 30 marks Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died in service to the United States. The federal holiday, originally called Decoration Day, was created to honor and remember Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. In May of 1868, Gen. John Logan declared the holiday “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land” (Library of Congress). It would later be recognized as a day to commemorate all U.S. troops and soldiers (Military.com). However, Memorial Day’s origins and earliest known tributes have been forgotten.

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Since its creation, many cities have claimed to be the holiday’s birthplace. Groups of women in the South decorating the graves of Confederate, and sometimes Union, soldiers during 1886 were commonplace (Veteran Affairs). Twenty-five regions have been linked to the tradition, though the first recorded tribute was held by recently emancipated Black people in the year prior, 1865. 

In Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate army held Union soldiers in prison camps, including a converted country club and race track (History.com). It’s estimated that more than 200 Union soldiers died there and were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. Following the end of the Civil War in April of that year, freed Black people in Charleston exhumed the mass grave of Union soldiers and gave them a proper burial. They reinterred each soldier into a new cemetery that they built with a 10-foot-tall white fence surrounding the graves with “Martyrs of the Race Course” marked on the archway.

On May 1, 1865, around 10,000 people visited the site and held a parade at the race track. The group consisted of recently emancipated Black people and white missionaries. News reports from The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier reported that “three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang ‘John Brown’s Body.’ Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.” 

A reporter for the New York Tribune described it as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before” (TIME).

While the first official commemoration wouldn’t be for another three years, this event organized by recently freed Black people would be one of the first observances of Memorial Day. However, like many contributions of Black people, enslaved or otherwise, to this country, the reburial and subsequent tribute to the soldiers were lost to history. And the cemetery would later be replaced by Hampton Park, named after Confederate General Wade Hampton, and the Martyrs of the Race Course were reburied at a national cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina.

“This was a story that had really been suppressed both in the local memory and certainly the national memory,” Professor and 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner in history David Blight said. “But nobody who had witnessed it could ever have forgotten it.”

Blight, whose 2001 book, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” helped raise awareness of the forgotten tribute, says that it’s not widely known because it “didn’t fit their version of what the war was all about.” Incidences like a 1937 book attempted to erase the role and presence of Black people from the story, crediting the entire tribute to James Redpath, a white director of freedman’s education who participated in the actual event. The author referred to them as “black hands which only knew that the dead they were honoring had raised them from a condition of servitude.”

The whitewashing of U.S. history not only erases the violence of whiteness and white supremacy against Black and Indigenous people, but it effectively minimizes the contributions of these marginalized communities. And as state government legislation continues to sanitize their ancestors’ terroristic and genocidal legacy, it’s important to remember and elevate these stories of freedom and celebration of Black people.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The first official national celebration of Memorial Day was three years after the end of the Civil War.

• The earliest recorded tribute that may have inspired the tradition was in 1865 led by recently freed Black people.

• The whitewashing of U.S. history enables the minimizing of the contributions of Black people in favor of whiteness.

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