Education doesn’t stop in the classroom. Over the years, we’ve had to unlearn many of America’s historical traits and discover just how much African American, Latinx, and Indigenous Peoples have done for the foundation of the country. Another aspect of America’s fabric includes how freed black women, men and children created Memorial Day.
The story kicks off during the days of the Civil War in 1865 when Union and Confederate soldiers fought in Charleston, South Carolina. Just two years earlier, free and escaped slaves were allowed to enlist in the army with a reported 179,000 taking part. During the most savage parts of the Civil War, hundreds of members of the Union were left for dead at Washington Race Course with the track being converted into a prison camp. As many fled the state (including Confederate soldiers), former slaves remained.
Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks wrote in 2009 that those who died at the racecourse were buried in mass graves but the former slaves (who called themselves “Patriotic Association of Colored Men”) dug up the bodies and created shallow graves for the soldiers in Hampton Park. The group reportedly created a 10-foot fence and dug 257 graves.
The effort took two weeks but the funeral proved to be a touching tribute as a documented 2,800 black school children sang songs like “John Brown’s Body” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” with sermons delivered by black preachers on May 1, 1865.
David Blight, an American history professor at Yale University (Race and Reunion) and author Robert Rosen (Confederate Charleston) note that the event was known as “Martyrs of the Race Course” and appeared in the paper, Charleston Daily Courier, the next day.
“What’s interesting to me is how the memory of this got lost,” Blight said. “It is, in effect, the first Memorial Day and it was primarily led by former slaves in Charleston.”
It’s been said that white people confused the ceremony for a celebration for the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 (insert eye roll) and a year later, Waterloo, New York celebrated the so-called first Decoration Day, mimicking the same traditions done in Charleston.
In April 1866, Confederate Memorial Day took place with both holidays doing the same traditions. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization for Union veterans, declared May 5, 1868, Decoration Day but Union Maj. Gen. John A. Logan decided Decoration Day should take place later in the month (May 30). Eventually, the holidays merged and became Memorial Day to be celebrated on last Monday of May.
The complicated role of black people in American wars continued as Chuck Hobbs of the Hobbservation Point noted in the 2017 article, Remembering when Black soldiers were lynched en masse by the Army during World War I. Hobbs shared how General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, enforced a divide between black and white soldiers, stating, “we must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of White Americans.” Black soldiers were lynched for petty violations and at times, due to sheer racism.
At times it’s hard to enjoy a holiday that hasn’t honored all of us, but historians continue to uncover unsung heroes nearly every day. Films like Glory have highlighted black soldiers and reenactments of their efforts continue around the country.
Read more about Memorial Day’s history here and feel free to revisit The Root’s breakdown of the holiday below.